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Winter 2008/2009
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Algonquin Forestry Authority in Central Ontario, Canada, Moves Toward Paperless Reporting and Analysis

Using GIS Across the Forest


  • GIS is used to help plan complex harvest areas.
  • ArcGIS Server supports the entire Ontario government repository.
  • GIS is used to maintain park zoning established by the Algonquin Park Management Plan.

Algonquin Provincial Park, in central Ontario, Canada, is 763,000 hectares (one hectare is 10,000 square meters) with approximately 56 percent of the total park area available for forestry activities. This forest provides 45 percent of the Crown wood to the industry in the southern region of Ontario. The forest is a transition area between Canada's southern and northern tree species, with two distinct forest types in the park. On the west side is a hardwood forest made up of predominantly sugar maple, beech, yellow birch, and hemlock. On the east side is white pine, red pine, poplar, and white birch. The mixtures of species in the forest create managerial challenges. GIS is used to plan forestry activities and create reports so the public can be assured that the park continues to be managed as a sustainable forest.

Cut block map shows harvesting crew where and how to log. The red indicates no-cut zones. Areas for seeding activity for stand regeneration are also shown.

Algonquin Forestry Authority (AFA) has been using GIS in its management practices for about 15 years. This Ontario Crown agency is responsible for sustainable forest management and the wood supply that comes from that forest to mills surrounding the park. Recently, the authority upgraded its GIS by adding server GIS technology to better access forest management information and share that data with staff and other resource managers.

AFA is registered to both the ISO 14001 environmental standard and the Canadian Standards Association's Z809 sustainable forest management standard. It is therefore required to comply with mandates for reporting and management practices. AFA's GIS team has been using ArcGIS Desktop software to gather and track information and keep that information updated. By adding ArcGIS Server technology, the GIS team can now author maps and serve them, along with various tools that other staff can use to interact with the data. Carl Corbett, Algonquin Forestry Authority general manager, explains, "GIS has proved to be an essential component in our forest management methods. We are required to track how the forest is growing, regenerating, and responding to various treatments. GIS helps us document and plan our activities of responsible sustainable management. The task is simply too complex to perform in a paper environment."

To meet the park's needs at the local level, Algonquin Forestry Authority uses ArcGIS for a host of applications, including strategic and operational planning, stand management, access road planning, values mapping (i.e., cultural and recreational values), wildlife habitat protection, and scientific data gathering and reporting. The authority's supervisor of technology Peter VanderKraan and GIS technician David Webster talked with various forestry associates to get advice about approaches and data model organization, then implemented ArcGIS Server on their own.

  click to enlarge
Moose habitat is added to the map to show seasonally restricted breeding areas.

Continuing the advancement of its GIS configuration has improved the authority's workflows and opened up greater opportunities for staff to use forestry data. Moreover, government agencies use GIS in their everyday work processes. The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources Forest Information Manual is the framework by which the industry and government undertake their roles in, and responsibilities for, providing and exchanging information for the purpose of forest management planning and to ensure compliance with the Crown Forest Sustainability Act and its regulations. The standardized format is a conduit for easy forestry data exchange.

"We put together a variety of GIS applications that improved staff work processes," explains VanderKraan. "For example, we fed data from the government's Strategic Forest Management Model into the GIS to identify areas eligible for treatment. GIS processes the data, which helps us plan harvest areas based on stand age, time since last treatment, and impact on wildlife habitat and identify areas by a designated period of time for various management activities.

"ArcGIS Server allows AFA to share data locally, plus the GIS environment is a seamless fabric that works hand in hand with the whole Ontario government repository. Therefore, whether AFA is working locally or provincially, the flow of data is the same. ArcGIS software provides the type of scalability that allows for an evolution of AFA's technology."

GIS for Forest Management Historical Information

A geodatabase of forest inventory contains information about stand species, age, stand classification, and other basic forestry information. The database also includes habitat and wildlife information. Based on this data, the authority develops a forest management plan of activities. The plan includes forest stand location, as well as how much of each forest type is cut and during what season. The majority of harvesting is conducted using partial cutting systems where all trees are individually marked for either retention or cutting. GIS helps foresters determine what areas have been cut in the past and plan what is to be cut in the future. Variables in formulating this harvest plan include not only the tree species, cutting cycle, and location but also other relevant information, such as road system by season (e.g., gravel versus winter road) and proximity to recreational values. Because the authority is required to make these plans available to the public, labeling, color coding, and legends are created in accord with the Ontario Map Standard for fast interpretation.

  click to enlarge
GIS Forest Units Map shows forest inventory of species, water, marshes, and more. It identifies the location of leading species within an area.

GIS also generates allocation maps to guide forestry contractors who perform the work. AFA supervisors access these maps via a GIS map catalog that allows them to view a digital map and print it if needed. As part of the work process, once management activities are complete, data is entered into the GIS database to create weekly and monthly reports. The GIS technician puts this information into the system and maintains an updated inventory of the state of the forest.

Having a current forest database is an essential asset for people managing a sustainable forest. Whether caring for a stream or a raptor's nest, protection policies need to be implemented and recorded. Because GIS is connected to attribute tables, users can enter the data and create a new map that includes these changes. Users can select types of information from tables to include in their projects to produce a variety of different maps to show species, age, and habitat, as well as their relationships.

ArcGIS interfaces with other types of software and data. This permits the Algonquin Forestry Authority's GIS staff to create tools adding functionality that can be brought into the workflow to improve efficiency. They have added a feature to a GIS routine so that an e-notification is distributed, informing supervisors and other relevant people that updated maps are available for their particular areas. In addition, securities were initiated so that people only receive information relevant to their own job processes. For example, the forester who approves change notices can access a specific map and forward required changes to the GIS technician. Once the changes are made, GIS sends an automatic notification to the AFA staff that the map in a map catalog has been updated.

Algonquin Provincial Park includes Rock Lake and its campground.

An advantage of using GIS in a server environment is that an increasing number of staff are able to use the authority's data for more purposes. VanderKraan notes, "Using server technology changes the way we store data. Rather than our people gathering data and putting it in a big vat where they don't see the results of that information, they can be part of map creation. This makes it more compelling for our staff to interact with the GIS and the data. This Web-accessible interaction affects the way our people approach data. It puts technology capabilities into the hands of even those people who have very little technical expertise. Furthermore, we can tailor our workflow to complement our current data structures or data communication flow in the park. We often work in a disconnected environment because we don't have cell tower or satellite access in the forest. But staff can download the information to their laptops/PDAs/UMPCs [ultra-mobile PCs] in the office at night and in the morning take the new data and updated maps on these devices into the field. We are moving out of a paper environment into a digital environment."

Besides stand management, GIS is used to track the forest's road systems. The road system geodatabase includes active roads, decommissioned roads, water crossings, seasonality, and more. Primary road information is made available to the public via a Web site. Other road information is kept confidential to maintain and protect park values. These roads are closed to public travel and are available only to specified staff for management purposes.

Wildlife data is also stored in the GIS for study and research. Species locations are plotted and their habitats protected. Because GIS works with tables, animal type and features can easily be selected and added to the map, along with identifying data. This can then be worked into the sustainable plan of the forest. For instance, moose aquatic feeding areas are denoted, and forestry operations are restricted around those areas during the season moose are using them. Protecting wildlife habitat is essential to meeting the mandate required of the authority. "GIS data about species and habitat can be easily shared with scientists researching the many aspects of the forest," says VanderKraan. "We work with various research and government agencies to develop GIS modeling processes that will enhance the development of future plans."

"Algonquin native values are noted in the GIS and maps," explains Corbett. "The authority works with the local Algonquins to identify areas of importance. For example, a white birch stand depicted on the map may be a good resource for bark needed to make canoes."

AFA also uses GIS to maintain park zoning established by the Algonquin Park Management Plan. These maps show different usage types, for example, wilderness and nature reserves, historic zones, and recreation zones. Some private land is within the park's boundaries, as well as aboriginal values and archaeological sites.

More Information

For more information, contact Peter VanderKraan, supervisor, Information and Communication Technology, Algonquin Forestry Authority (e-mail:, tel.: 705-789-9647).

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