Between caution and success: remote sensing to shape European forestry

The H2020 research project, which will conclude in October 2020, features a series of interviews focused on the current forest sector challenges in Europe and how remote sensing technologies are needed to address them.

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Photo: Max Hermansson on Unsplash

More than two years have passed since the beginning of the My Sustainable Forest project, which is already facing the final stretch of its completion in the upcoming months, and today it can successfully announce the development of a portfolio of ready-made services based on remote sensing technology. With this pre-commercial services portfolio (which includes satellite and LIDAR data applications), the objective of the project partners is to facilitate day-to-day forest management tasks and to foster a more efficient and technologically up-to-date forestry.

The purpose of this Horizon 2020 project was apparently easy but it concealed an ambitious goal: to encourage a greater digitalisation in the forest sector that would facilitate tasks as diverse as a forest inventory or the early detection of forest disturbances on woodlands, to name a few examples. To meet this goal, partners from all over Europe, ranging from small and medium-sized enterprises in the forest-based sector to scientific institutions, forestry associations and public bodies representing forest owners, joined forces to shape this effort that would undoubtedly modernise the forestry sector in Europe and on a global scale.

Coordinated by the Spanish multinational company GMV, specialised in the development of satellite navigation technologies in the aerospace, defence and security sectors, the My Sustainable Forest consortium has developed a portfolio of six main services, including 21 products that forest owners and managers can request at a single click:

  • Forest Characterisation service provides facts on the status and condition of predefined forest properties: Forest extension, stand delineation, forest infrastructures, main forest types, stand variables, etc.
  • Wood Characterisation service consists in the modelling and mapping of wood fibre attributes linked to the wood product potential and performance (i.e. pulp yield, density, strength and stiffness of lumber).
  • Volume, Biomass and CO2 stock service provides estimations of the living volume of trees in a forest and its CO2 stock, which are essential for biomass industry and carbon accountings.
  • Forest Condition service monitors and measures forest health condition, identifying stressed vegetation due to droughts, plagues or any other hampering cause.
  • Ecosystem Vulnerabilities service provides information on watershed extent, hydrologic network, biodiversity indicators, habitat fragmentation, floods and forest fire risks.
  • Forestry Accounting service provides a comprehensive view of the relationships between economy and environment through a monetary value of a specific forest cover.

This platform, compliant with open and standard interfaces, integrates the latest Earth Observation technologies into forest stakeholder’s decision-making processes and operations. Within the framework of the project, entities such as GMV, Föra Forest Technologies, Madera Plus and the European Forest Institute (EFI) have been leading the production of this portfolio of services and products with the support of other public and private forest institutions all over Europe, which acted as validators and data providers for the development of this My Sustainable Forest remote sensing toolkit for silviculture.

The RAIZ Pulp and Paper Research Centre, the Croatian Forest Research Institute, the University of Mendel in Brno, the Association of Forest Owners of Navarre and Lithuania, the Centre Nationale de la Propriété Forestière (CNPF) form this network of validators who also act as direct links with the forest sectors from the countries represented in the consortium: Portugal, France, Spain, Croatia, Czech Republic, and Lithuania.

My Sustainable Forest partners during a technical field trip in Les Landes de Gascogne forestlands in France. Photo: Gerard Fernández.

Delving into the needs and challenges facing European foresters

Forests are part of the cornerstone of the new green economy, included in the EU’s new Green Deal. They are a source of multiple social and environmental benefits which, in many countries, are also drivers of rural development and catalysts for regions facing depopulation. Following the principles of sustainability set out in the EU Forest Strategy, My Sustainable Forest has committed itself to helping forest operators plan their commercial or recreational activities more regularly and efficiently, by providing tools to monitor changes in forests (forest extent, attributes of available wood, emerging ecosystem services, impact of disturbances, health vulnerability, etc.).

During the course of the project, all the consortium partners met with forest stakeholders in those European countries where testing tasks and field work were performed to validate most of the remote sensing products. Among all the countries where activities, meetings and workshops were held, those organised in the Czech Republic, France and Portugal should be highlighted since, although they show very different climatic and forest characteristics, the three countries share the same concerns and challenges in the face of a global threat: climate change and its impact on forest resilience.

After more than a dozen interviews conducted by the My Sustainable Forest team with professionals, representatives of forest owners associations, researchers from ministries or academics from the silviculture community, we have been able to extract some reflections that are common in Central, Southern and Western Europe. There is a growing interest in the potential of remote sensing technologies for the early detection of problems such as biotic damage and ecosystem vulnerabilities.

Most of the interviewees agree that the proliferation of pests, such as bark beetles, is one of the most difficult challenges to address at present and one that is having a severe impact on the forest sector and its competitiveness. So, given this context described in our video series, the question we posed to interviewees next was: Do you think remote sensing technology can be a solution to address this challenge and take prompt action? Despite some hesitant reactions, the general attitude in all the workshops organised by My Sustainable Forest could be summarised as follows: a cautious look combined with high expectations.

To date, the project has conducted a dozen interviews with forestry practitioners, policy-makers and researchers across Europe. Photo: My Sustainable Forest

Prudence is the usual approach when forestry and remote sensing applications are intertwined. Despite great advances in recent years, there is still resistance to consider these solutions based on Earth Observation data, satellite technologies and LIDAR as a set of elements that may support the current fieldwork on the ground, which is less automated but “more reliable” according to the sectorial mindset. Furthermore, if this factor is coupled with a lack of knowledge and training in applying this technology, it is likely that the market penetration of remote sensing solutions in this area will eventually be more gradual and slower than expected.

Therefore, knowing that the integration of these technologies must be accompanied by capacity building and training, My Sustainable Forest is developing a series of outreach and marketing initiatives, which will be available on the project website shortly. The ultimate goal is to demonstrate the user-friendliness of remote sensing products which, in turn, promote greater efficiency, sustainability and modernisation in forest management operations.

My Sustainable Forest Services

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