In the Field at Last

Forestry Inventory includes more than simply measuring trees. Now that I’ve had experience in the field, I’m finding our work requires a wide range of measurements and more calculation than one would expect. For each individual tree we measure the expected height and diameter, yes, but we also evaluate the tree as a whole and consider it in the context of the surrounding forest. Among it all, we collect data and take notes on the entire area of observation, classifying the fire risk based on fuel types, assigning a stand structure, measuring the slope and aspect, etc. We spend a lot of time looking up: evaluating for any evidence of damages, determining the live foliage ratio, classifying the crown class (think of it as the “social” position relative to other trees and sunlight). We also spend time looking down: Inspecting for insect or disease evidence on trees, measuring soil layer depths, noting present vegetation species.

See, the job is as much extrapolation and educated estimation as it is measurement. When evaluating the crown of a tree, we’re mentally compacting the foliage to decide what percent of the tree we would say is covered, and visually dividing trees into parts to give each visible damage a rating. The work can be surprisingly subjective at times. Time and experience aid in this, but as a crew we discuss our evaluations constantly. It’s not uncommon for someone to call out and ask for second opinions, shouting from across the subplot “Hey, what percent of this tree would you say is covered in live foliage?”. Sometimes we agree and sometimes we don’t, in which case we settle for a middling ground. There are guidelines to help us make decisions, of course, in the form of a 500 page manual we keep close at all times, inside the field and beyond. It’s not just me referencing the manual constantly, even the most seasoned crew members consult our spiral bound companion on plot. The field manual holds rules of thumb, tips and tricks, measurement procedure, classifications strategies, and more. It contains everything from numeric codes assigned to non-numeric data to adaptive measurement methods for when we encounter something atypical.

Of course, typical is not a word I’d closely associate with the woods, maybe enigmatic is better. A forest doesn’t lend itself well to uniformity, that’s for sure, and exists in a constant state of flux. A piece of advice if you’re thinking of breaking into the forestry industry: Throw your preconceived notions of consistency and routine out the window. Regardless of what science may say, nature won’t follow a strict set of rules. Well, that’s not exactly true, but within the known immutable laws of nature you’ll find every variation you can imagine, plus more that you haven’t yet. There are always unexpected factors we must adapt to because, well, nothing is going to be constant in nature. You’ll find a large rock in the place you’re supposed to put a pin or an ambiguous dead tree with live branches, maybe a tree will fall precisely on the plot boundary or there are no trees at all and you have to improvise reference markers. See what I mean? But that variation, the unexpected, is the best part of the job. Sometimes each subplot within a single large plot will look wildly different—”forest” is a much broader word than one would think. In the morning we’ll be measuring a subplot which feels like a sunny meadow, the forest floor a carpet of grasses and wildflowers with only a few trees dotting the landscape, then move onto the neighboring subplot covered in large logs or limbs, sprawling like matchsticks from mass tree morality caused by root disease or insects. Maybe one stand will have an area dense with mature trees situated next to an area with evidence of an old burning or logging operation. The number of trees on each subplot will range, sometimes we’ll have 5 trees, sometimes 65.

Data is collected from each plot every 10 years, so there are notes from previous crews to help us out. But a lot can change in 10 years, so sometimes we arrive to find the plot wildly different from how it was described. That’s just the nature of nature, I guess. Forests are constantly changing, things are growing, things are dying, pockets of vegetation species ebb and flow, spread and disappear. In this job each day is different because each plot is different. I have a feeling there won’t be a dull day in FIA. Lucky me, which I mean in the least sarcastic way possible.

My team has devoted a lot of time to training me, most helpfully by narrating as they collect data and answering my many hypotheticals. I try not to feel bad about adding to their to-do list in the field (as is my admittedly irrational tendency) because I know teaching me is a long-term investment; While it may slow us down in the present, I’ll be able to contribute more and work autonomously soon enough. For the time being, though, I’ll be asking a lot of questions and getting well acquainted with my trusty handbook.

Before I sign off, I know you’ve been on the edge of your seat wondering “what has been the coolest fact she’s learned so far?”. Fear not, that question is a no-brainer: It turns out my hug is 16.3” in diameter, and I have encountered exactly 2 trees that are perfectly huggable.

Until next time,


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