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Technology Allowing Rapid Advances in Forest Understanding

Progress with the flagship research programme supported by the Forest Growers Levy Trust, the Growing Confidence in Forestry’s Future or GCFF for short, was presented by Scion researchers at the GCFF conference in Auckland on Friday 13th May. This ambitious programme aims to double forest productivity, but to do this sustainably so as not to put forestry’s reputation as a sustainable land use and its licence to operate at risk.

Two international speakers provided an interesting perspective on forest investment in the USA where the single biggest item in the US Forest Service budget is now firefighting. In Europe the increasing cost to forest owners of damage caused by storms, insects and fire was highlighted.   The 2007 fires in Greece cost Euro 5 billion and in Sweden in 2005 75 million m3 of standing timber was destroyed by wind. France lost 180 million m3 to wind in 1999. As a result the Europeans are proposing a European Risk Facility to support research, contingency planning, community communication, capacity building and post-event response coordination.

The GCFF programme is enabling long term productivity and genetics trials established in the 1980’s at a range of sites to be intensively assessed for wood yield, wood quality and tree value. These are valuable trials that are now yielding extremely useful information on the interactions between site, genetics, and forest management on wood quality and the ultimate value of the crop. Already there are useful learnings that final crop stockings are generally too low to maximise site potential. Whilst higher stockings will increase yield and wood quality, there is also an increase in the proportion of lower quality core wood in logs that needs to be considered in forest management planning.

Importantly this research has shown that productivity gains can be achieved without compromising wood quality. These are normally negatively correlated.

These long term trials are also providing very valuable information on the impact of nutrients, water, soil and climate on productivity on different sites. Combining actual productivity from growth plots with predicted productivity has enabled researchers to identify those areas across the country that are not performing at their potential. New data from some of these trials is being incorporated into a nutrient balance model, called “NuBalm” which is currently being enhanced and validated for use by forest growers and policy people who are dealing with nutrient management issues. Current forestry models within “Overseer” (the tool used for nutrient budgeting in the agriculture sector) are extremely limited.

Rapid developments in remote sensing are improving the potential to “phenotype” our forests to identify the superior trees in the forest estate, locate these trees on the ground, identify the parent trees from DNA sampling and then reproduce these trees for similar sites in the forest – the aim being to get the best trees on each site. UAVs equipped with extremely powerful sensors are now providing data at a resolution and cost only dreamed of until a year or two ago. Data provided from this technology will revolutionise the way we measure and assess our forests in the future.