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Timber industry embracing geospatial technology tools

When Robby Toombs, regional manager for Resource Management Service, LLC (RMS), goes out into the field visiting a tract of land in the more than 300,000 acres under the firm’s control, he has an incredible amount of information — literally — at his fingertips. Using a laptop computer that contains data on the entire acreage, GIS (geographic information system) software and a hand-held GPS (global positioning system), Toombs can pull up current information gleaned from a combination of data collected in the field and remote sensing to help him make educated decisions on what that track of land needs.

“We are definitely using geospatial tools on a daily basis,” said Toombs, who is based in Flowood. “We have a real solid program that is developed and managed by a group of RMS folks in Birmingham, Ala., that we utilize out in the field. Modern geospatial tools such as GIS and GPS allow us to maximize our effectiveness, and make sure that the timber land is managed properly. We are in business, but we are stewards of the resource, and geospatial technology allows us to ensure we are doing a good job from a financial and environmental standpoint.”

RMS’ acreage in Mississippi is scattered from Southwest to Central Mississippi. The information gathered by geospatial tools enables the RMS staff to be more efficient as they manage such a diverse spread. They use the tools to help make good decisions on issues such as when to thin or harvest the forest, and how to lay out tracks to plant.

“For whatever activity, we use GPS units so we know right where we are on the Earth,” Toombs said. “They help us fine tune to make sure we are doing exactly what we need to do at the right place and the right time. It just makes us a lot more efficient. The key to managing any business is having access to quality information about the business. Ultimately, it is extremely cost effective, and helps us save time, too.

Real-time advantage

“Satellite imaging is very important for managing forest lands in Mississippi,” said Wayne Tucker, executive director of the Mississippi Institute for Forest Inventory. “It gives us some real time information that otherwise we would not have. Other types of information available might be several years old. With satellite imaging, we can look at large areas in a short period of time, and make the adjustments needed to manage timber lands whether private or public.”

Remote sensing information can be used to help decide what varieties of trees to plant. The predominant species planted in Mississippi is loblolly pine. Many forest lands in the state have been converted to loblolly because of its fast growth.

“But longleaf, which used to be common throughout the state especially from Laurel south, withstands the hurricanes better,” Tucker said. “Loblolly was hit hard by Katrina. It may be more economically beneficially to plant the longleaf that is slower growing but better quality. A major product from longleaf pines is utility poles that have to be of high quality.”

There are currently two different forest inventories being conducted. The Forest Service conducts a 90,000-foot overview of the entire state mainly to look at forest health and trends within the region. The Mississippi Institute for Forest Inventory is doing a more localized inventory.

Economic impact resonates

The forest inventory has important impacts on economic development. The market for wood products has changed drastically over the past 10 years as some types of manufacturers using timber as a raw material have closed and operations have moved overseas. Now, there is interest from ethanol plants and other types of businesses that need good information about the amount of raw material available before making investment decisions.

“What we are seeing is more companies interested in coming to Mississippi, but their products would be things like ethanol and wood pellets,” Tucker said. “An ethanol plant might not draw raw material but from six or seven counties, but they need specific information on those six or seven counties. Wood pellets are also big right now. They need to know if there is enough supply. There is also a major OSB (oriented strand board) plant interested in locating in the state that would use a little larger area than six or seven counties. An OSB plant would probably draw from a 60-mile radius and employ 200 to 250 people.”

Tucker said since the state has lost so many manufacturers that have gone to other countries, landowners need new markets for their timber. The inventory helps existing companies, as well as those new companies coming to the state, to better define where their raw material is located.

The forest inventory information is available free for any new business or existing business. Tucker said they will customize the raw material needs information to particular areas.

“The timber industry contributes some $14 billion to the state’s economy on an annual basis,” Tucker said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

About Becky Gillette

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