forest (Olga Danylenko/

Inventory management system streamlines foresters' field work

The digitization of inventory and maintenance processes is helping Michigan better manage its 4 million acres of state forests.

About 150 foresters regularly use the Michigan Forest Inventory (MiFI) system to manage the state's forests, collecting data on tree types and making recommendations for prescribing controlled burns, preserving habitat, improving hiking trails or scheduling timber sales. Originally launched in 2014 as an application on state-owned desktops, laptops and Windows 10 tablets, MiFI is getting ready for an update this year so that iOS and Android users can access the app from their personal devices.

“It’s going to open up our ability to utilize different field hardware,” said Jason Stephens, state forest inventory specialist at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) Forest Resources Division. “We need to modernize our field hardware and shrink it down in size. Our folks carry a lot of 10-inch Windows tablets in the field right now, and they have a strong desire for smaller field devices for doing our field GPS and GIS work.”

For now, foresters can use MiFI to electronically evaluate parcels; measure forest density, type and age; record details about the health of the area; update data on infrastructure such as roads and bridges; and electronically update the timber sale system when stands of trees -- contiguous communities of trees that are often alike in type, age and size -- are ready for commercial harvest.

“We had an antiquated process around generating the paperwork or the contracts for that part of our business, and it required a lot of extra data entry by our folks,” Stephens said of the timber sales. “By being in GIS, we leveraged that spatial information into that proposal and now are able to eliminate a significant amount of time it takes our folks to go through that part of the process.”

Before MiFI, the department used a forest inventory software system built on a customized Esri ArcMap platform. Although it centralized data and was relatively easy to manage, it included business practices from the early 2000s that DNR was not going to fully adopt, Stephens said. Additionally, the custom programming used some outdated language, making it tough to update the platform without hiring a programmer to change the code.

With MiFI, users can view and edit DNR’s SQL database through a web-based Esri ArcGIS platform.

“It’s a very straightforward web map of the state of Michigan that has outlines for where the state-managed lands [are] -- primarily our state forests but also our state park and game area lands,” Stephens said. “Similar to any web-based map … you can pinch-zoom in or roll in with your mouse, and the closer you get, more of the data appears.”

Editing has two aspects. First, there’s spatial editing in which users decide what areas qualify as a stand or whether multiple areas should be merged into one. The spatial tools can fine-tune management and ownership, so that when the state disposes of parcels, foresters can manage the information with MiFI.

Second, the attributes that users ascribe to the stand-level or treatment data are primarily in drop-down menus, but they can also enter comments.

“For example, if we’re going to propose a harvest near a recreation trail, we may be able to shape and show the boundary, how it’s going to sit relative to that recreational site,” Stephens said. “In the comments, we would describe measures that we’re going to take to mitigate any significant impacts on the recreation.”

A big benefit of the system is time savings, he said. Before, state foresters spent about 40 percent of their time over a 12-month period on inventory.

“I probably spent a third of my time on the phone with individuals that were managing this information, and now I’m like the old Maytag repairman in the commercials who doesn’t answer his phone,” Stephens said. “I’ve moved on to other projects, so I don’t quite have his luxuries of sleeping on the job or anything, but the folks that used to do the support of staff, answering basic questions of how to get from Point A to B in the process, now are able to focus on more important questions and do a higher level of work in managing the forest.”

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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