Using Drones for Better Forest Access and Management

drone hovering
An Autel Robotics X-Star Premium drone hovering over land trust property. Photo: Mark Gray

The Chehalis River Basin Land Trust owns or holds conservation easements on over 4,400 acres of forest land in southwest Washington. Land Trust representatives visit these lands each year to develop restoration plans, and monitor for invasive species, garbage dumping and other damage. Many of the land trust’s holdings lack roads and are accessible only by foot or boat. Some of the lands contain extensive wetlands that are not accessible even by foot.

To improve the value of their monitoring efforts and to facilitate long term observations of site conditions, the Land Trust has been using an Android tablet loaded with GIS and GPS software. With these tools examiners have access to maps, as well as photos and GPS tracks of previous site visits in the field. QGIS (www.qgis.org) and Handy GPS (www.binaryearth.net) are two great free software solutions for field mapping. Free is an important consideration for non-profit, volunteer organization like the Chehalis River Basin Land Trust.

However, these tools don’t help with access to areas that are too wet or steep to be reached by foot. To overcome this challenge the land trust has been investigating the use of an unmanned aerial vehicle (or drone) as a relatively low-cost way to access areas ground based observers can’t reach.

Land Trust board members and volunteers recently had an opportunity to experience a drone in action when Grays Harbor College forestry instructor Alex Bastos provided a demo of the College’s drone at a site east of Aberdeen in the Chehalis River Surge Plain. The site is a wetland, dissected by a network of sloughs draining into the Chehalis River and is not accessible by foot or boat. The Autel Robotics X-Star Premium drone provided high resolution video and still photos of areas that the land owners had never seen. The drone flies at a height of up to 400 feet and has a range of about 1,800 feet from the controller providing plenty of range to cover much of the parcel. The drone can stay airborne for only fifteen minutes but can cover a lot of ground in this short time.  You can see a video of the drone in action at https://youtu.be/lIbFYHEL_eg

While using a drone requires a certain level of skill to make the best use of its range and flight time is limited by battery life, it has the potential to be a useful tool to survey inaccessible lands quickly and cost effectively.

The Chehalis River Basin Land Trust holds over 4,400 acres for conservation, protection, and restoration in our beautiful Basin. From the rolling hills and prairies south of Puget Sound to the saltwater estuaries on the Pacific coast, the Chehalis River watershed stretches across 2,660 square miles. Waters from five different counties flow into Grays Harbor by way of the Chehalis River, forming the second largest river basin in Washington State. To learn more about the Chehalis River Basin Land Trust, visit their website at www.chehalislandtrust.org

By Mark Gray, board member, Chehalis River Basin Land Trust