USA — Tablet computers and satellites have been added to the weapons deployed in Arizonas battle to save its clogged, fire-prone ponderosa pine forests.
And drones may follow. They are another piece of modern technology that the Nature Conservancy and its partners are seriously considering using in their efforts to thin the forests of northern and eastern Arizona by targeting specific trees for cutting as they try to restore a more natural fire pattern.
The high-tech help is contributing to crucial efforts to break up the forest and reduce the risk of a repeat of recent infernos that have consumed hundreds of thousands of acres.
Weve lost one-quarter of our ponderosa forest to fire in a decade, and the remaining 3 million acres are at risk, said Patrick Graham, Arizona state director for the Nature Conservancy.
The non-profit is funding a test of global-positioning technology to instantly catalog every tree that a crew cuts. For now, that helps foresters deciding what should be cut next to better plan ecological restoration. But the ultimate goal is to upgrade the software so the computer can tell timber-cutting machine operators whether to cut or save specific trees in front of them.
That will require digital cameras and computer analysis, something the Nature Conservancy hopes will develop from the latest tests.
Sending unmanned aircraft over the forests could also aid the program, and discussions are under way with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott about testing such drones.
The array of high-tech gadgets is a modern-day answer to the old-time timber cruisers who might have needed months to hike through cutting zones and rough out maps that foresters could analyze when prescribing further thinning.
The GPS computers ride along with tree cutters who operate heavy equipment, connecting with satellites to track the work.
Craig Reddell, a logger for the contractor thinning the Mormon Lake basin, was hooked up to the new technology as he drove an automated tree cutter on a recent morning.
Sitting in the cockpit of a machine that looks like a front-end loader with pincers extended out front, he lopped ponderosas about a foot in diameter wherever they grew so close that their limbs touched other trees.
With each push of a button on his joystick, the pincers cut a tree a few inches from its base and held it up while he maneuvered to a log pile to dump it.
Each button-push etched a point onto the digital map displayed on the tablet computer above his head, but he paid no attention.
Its not in the way whatsoever, he said. Turn it on, tune it out.
With traditional methods, the only way to speed the cutting and stay ahead of the next seasonal outbreak of fires would be to send a costly army of foresters into the woods. Thats not going to happen in todays federal budget climate.
Currently its the guys with the clipboards and cameras three months later going out to see whats happening, Graham said. Were turning the guy in that (logging) machine into a monitoring assistant.
The technology is expensive, though, and the Nature Conservancy is seeking $3 million from donors for the demonstration and software development.
So far, the group has raised about half of that amount. Boeing Co. is helping with two military-grade tablet computers mounted in the cockpits of tree harvesters being used to whack trees near Mormon Lake that otherwise might fuel fires and threaten a nearby vacation village.
Decades of fire suppression have left these forests thicker than they would be if fires could occasionally torch smaller trees while licking harmlessly at the thick bark of older giants. The thickly bunched trees allow flames to rage from limb to limb instead of spreading slowly through grassy meadow patches.
The damage is devastating and mounting: More than 1 million acres burned in the last 10 years, including a half-million in eastern Arizonas 2011 Wallow Fire alone.
Its 100 years of not allowing the most affecting process which is fire onto the landscape, said Neil Chapman, northern Arizona restoration manager for the Nature Conservancy.
If the tablet software develops as planned, the technology will be incorporated into the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, which is planning an unprecedented thinning program for nearly 1 million acres in northern Arizona. Right now, the loggers are working with a program developed by Southeastern tree farms, originally meant to help forecast how much timber is headed toward a mill.
Henry Provencio, team leader for the U.S. Forest Services 4FRI program, said he foresees using the system to direct loggers away from sensitive areas such as endangered-bird nests or archaeological sites, and to alert them when they enter areas where foresters have a different cutting prescription.
Theyre expensive, Provencio said of the tablets, about $15,000 apiece. But when you factor in the time for us going out and marking trees (as an alternative), its actually a savings.
As the Forest Service works to keep larger trees with safer spacing between them, the Nature Conservancy hopes to tweak the computer program so it can measure the size of each tree cut.
Another goal is to improve efficiency for timber companies that contract with the Forest Service to harvest the trees, Graham said.
This is small-diameter, low-value timber over a broad area, Graham said, which means lower profit margins for contractors thinning the woods. We cant be adding costs to the operator. We cant be adding costs to the Forest Service, he added.
Ken Ribelin who owns High Desert Investment Co., the contractor on the 1,640-acre Mormon Lake thinning project, thinks tablet technology could help him track and plan work and increase his profits.
Some of the logs cut from Mormon Lake go to a mill in Phoenix, but most go to his firewood-processing plant in Winslow.
Its not a huge money-making thing, he said of the firewood plant, but it takes small wood. Without it, we couldnt keep going.
The Nature Conservancy decided to pay for the program because the government is strapped and cant be expected to handle forest restoration alone, Graham said. And the software being deployed in the Arizona restoration project could help take care of forests in other states.
There are dry forests like this across the West, he said. We look at this as an investment in our future forests.