GIS and Forestry

Karisa Kane


Forestry Applications in GIS

How the U.S. Forest Service Implemented GIS

How Louisiana-Pacific is Using GIS in Forestry

How Canada Uses GIS in Forestry

GIS and Forest Fires

Forestry Websites



"GIS technology helps us organize the data about problems and understand their spatial relationship associations and provides a powerful means for analyzing and synthesizing information about them." (Aronoff, p.1) GIS is designed for the collection, storage, and analysis of objects, and phenomena where geographic location is an important characteristic or critical to the analysis. GIS is now accepted as a fundamental tool for the effective use of geographic information.

Forestry Applications

Forestry involves the management of a broad range of natural resources within a forested area. In addition to timber, forests provide such resources as grazing land for animals, wildlife habitat, water resources and recreation areas. The U.S. Forest Service is responsible for the management of forest harvesting, grazing leases, recreational areas, wildlife habitat, mining activities as well as protecting endangered species. To balance the competing resource conservation and resource use, activities must be accommodated. Accessing the feasibility of these multiple uses is greatly enhanced by the use of GIS techniques.

For example, the GIS for Flathead National Forest in Montana includes digital terrain data, vegetation associations from Landsat satellite data, timber compartments, land types, precipitation, land ownership, administrative districts and the drainage network. The GIS has been utilized for such analyses as timber harvesting, habitat protection and planning the location of scenic roads.

Over the past eight years, GIS technology has been widely accepted by public as well as private forestry agencies. In large part this has been a result of the benefit of using GIS technology over current forest maps. The primary management tool for timber production in America is the forest inventory. It is used to access the existing forest resource and develop harvest schedules and treatment programs to project future timber supplies and for other operational planning activities. Forest inventory data is collected using remote sensing techniques.

The conventional forest inventory was done progressively with a small portion of the forest being inventoried each year. To update a forest cover map could take 20 years or more with expensive manual drafting. With GIS, the forest cover maps can be updated on a constant basis and it provides the forest managers more current data than what was previously available. With GIS technology, the average age of the information in the forest data base could be reduced from 20 years to only a few weeks. The time factor alone has led to a wide acceptance and large demand for GIS applications in forestry.

In itself, the use of GIS to update the forest inventory maps is not much more than automated cartography but it is the analytical power of GIS that sets it apart from cartography. The GIS can store and analyze the forest information in ways that could not be previously done. It can be used to calculate the harvestable timber in the forest or model the spread of a forest fire.

U.S. Forest Service and GIS Implementation


Virtually as government forest management agencies in North America have acquired or are acquiring a GIS. GISes have been widely used by the U.S. Forest Service. In the mid-1980's three national forests were selected as GIS evaluation sites. They were George Washington National Forest in Virginia, the Tongass National Forest in Alaska and the Siuslaw National Forest in Oregon. At each of these sites, a GIS was installed and comprehensive data bases for these national forests were implemented. A cost/benefit analysis was kept on the GIS systems for a three year period. The U.S. Forest Service has decided, after the three year period, to implement a standardized GIS data base for the entire forest service. A $150 million procurement has been initiated for GIS hardware and software to be installed in 600 locations beginning in 1991.

The Southern Region of the Forest Service will receive GIS software on new UNIX workstations in 34 offices as part of the first phase of a region wide conversion of 120 of their southern offices. All of these units will have a complete GIS database. "The ability to perform spatial analysis and complex database queries will be completely new to them. The new system will empower employees with new ways to acquire knowledge." (Mead, p.50) In the early 1980's, the Forest Service spend time focusing on the computers rather than the data contained in them. Managers who were not part of the trained elite found themselves at hostage with the computer. This has changed since the implementation of GIS.

The Forest Service plans on training all its employees on the new GIS software by a training and mentoring program. The Forest Service wants its employees to learn by doing which may require a little bit of struggling when they come upon something they do not know.

How Louisiana-Pacific is Using GIS in Forestry

Louisiana-Pacific is using GIS technology to balance delicate habitat and land-use policies in forested areas. Louisiana-Pacific is an international company with $2.8 billion dollars in annual sales with 25,000 shareholders and 1.6 million acres of timberland. The company harvests 10% of its forest holdings in California and leaves more than 90% unharvested as a future investment and habitat for animals. The decision of where and when to cut down trees needs to be based on scientific fact and the ability to foresee long-term protection of habitat. In order to better understand the impact of cutting down trees on habitat, the company has invested in GIS technology. The GIS technology has enabled L-P to model the effects of harvesting trees now and 120 years from now.

An added benefit of using GIS technology has been a communication avenue between L-P and leading environmental groups such as World Wildlife Fund, the Nature Conservancy, and World Bank. The GIS applications allows maps, graphs, and other planning tools to be shared instead of each side coming up with their own statistics, maps and graphs. The Smithsonian Institute and Nature Conservancy has applauded the efforts of GIS.

L-P had already been using ARC/INFO for forest inventory and realized the enormous benefits of GIS in its ability to analyze and overlay data. The company uses the program FREIGHTS which stands for Forest REsource Inventory Growth and Harvest Tracking System. It is a generic simulator that allows information to be collected and analyzed about the conditions of individual trees. The company spent nearly $3 million dollars implementing the GIS database and system but having the most accurate information available will save the company millions of dollars in the long-term.

ESRI is already waving its green flag for GIS technology in forestry. Jack Dangermond, the company's president said, "I am a longtime believer in using GIS technology to preserve the environment. With GIS, the corporate customer can find viable, sustainable and profitable solutions to managing resources. That's something I think we can all live with." (Thompson, p.24)

L-P has long-term plans and goals for its GIS including making it available to others in government, academia, and the forestry industry. "By sharing this system with those who need it most, the company hopes to ensure the preservation of one of the world's most precious resources: its forests." (Thompson, p.24)

How Canada is Using GIS in Forestry

In Canada, almost every forestry agency has either implemented GIS or is in the process of implementing GIS technology. Forestry is a huge industry in the provinces. British Columbia's forest cover is 50 million hectares which is about 40% of the Canadian timber supply. (Aronoff, p.9) Before GIS, the forest databases were updated by aerial photography, field sampling methods and manual drafting. Under the GIS program, the forest maps were digitized and a forestry inventory can be updated constantly. GIS provides a way for forestry agencies to manage and manipulate their databases. Landsat satellite is used to update the individual maps that need current information due to forest harvesting or forest fires.

GIS and Forest Fires

Forest fires have an important influence on the vegetation cover, animals, plants, soil, stream flow, air quality, microclimate, and even general climate. The loss of timber is obvious and so is the damage to life and property. The loss of recreation value of the forest and the destruction of wildlife habitat are also consequences of forest fires.

Researchers and scientists have long been trying to predict the behavior of a forest fire. Computer modeling has been the effort of many scientists using high resolution remote-sensing satellite imagery, powerful software, and GIS. In order to model a forest fire, the techniques for obtaining , analyzing and displaying spatial information in a timely and cost-effective manner are needed. As forest fires are spatial, GIS is used as a tool for modeling. A fire simulation program called FIRE! has been developed using ARC/Info. "The model puts the power of comprehensive fire behavior prediction into the hands of qualified ground resource managers where it can be most effectively applied." (Weinstein, Green, Campbell, and Finney)

Through the integration of fire behavior models with GIS models, new insights in the fire danger situation can be gained. One example is the damage potential that arises from fires starting at a certain point to sensitive objects and areas like buildings, railway lines, fire-sensitive ecosystems. Proximity is a concept which is used in a great many GIS-related models.

The need for accurate and dependable tools for forest fire management has led to the demand for GIS in fighting forest fires. Every year people, equipment, and financial resources are spent trying to contain forest fires and extinguish wildfires. Millions of dollars are spent annually on protecting life and property, timber, recreational areas and valuable wildlife habitat. The need for accurate and timely information is crucial for safety and resource protection.

In the past, the fire behavior prediction tool used was BEHAVE. BEHAVE is a non-spatial tool that inputs fire fuel types, topography data, weather data, and initial fuel moisture data. While BEHAVE is useful for predicting fire characteristics in a given area, it cannot give spatial output. It is unable to predict spread rates, flame lengths, fire line intensities, and heat calculations when these parameters change and they do constantly during a fire. Whenever there is a change, the entire BEHAVE model must be recalculated. Obviously, this is a very inefficient way to model the behavior of a forest fire. However, with the use of GIS technology, the prediction of fire behavior has not only become possible, but incredibly efficient and effective.

The GIS-based forest fire model "puts the power of sound, accurate and efficient information into the hands of forest fire management personnel charged with coordinating the containment and extinguishing of wildfires. The model can now become one of the most effective tools for managing personnel, financial and equipment resources for battling one of our most destructive and dangerous forces of nature." (Weinstein, Green, Campbell and Finney)


Forestry Websites


USDA Forest Service -This is the National Headquarters for the Forest Service and this website offers numerous links to other forest-related sites. 

Hazard Observation Services-This site contains a program called FIRE! which is an arc-tool based GIS. It can be used to model forest fires by using data such as temporal weather, wind settings, initial fuel moisture to predict a fire behavior.

Biomass Burning-This site contains information on fire monitoring with the GOES 8 satellite.

Fire Danger Map-This site contains a fire danger map of the United States by the U.S. Forest Service that is updated daily.

California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection-This site provides information on fire zone maps and weather maps.

Oregon Department of Forestry -This site offers information on Oregon's forestry resources and has a huge links page to other forestry sites.


Aronoff, S., (1989). Geographic Information Systems: A Management Perspective. Ottawa: WDL Publications.

Mead, R., (1994, November). Field-Level Diffusion Eases GIS Implementation Efforts. GIS World, pp.50-52.

Thompson, T., (1996, September). Seeing the Future For the Trees. Geo Info Systems, pp.20-24.

Weinstein, D., Green, K., Campbell, J., Finney, M., (1997, May). Fire Growth Modeling in an Integrated GIS . Online:

Submitted By Karisa Kane

May 1, 1997