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FS, Florida A&M partner to improve forest conditions

GEORGIA—Imagine hours after a Category 5 hurricane devastates national, state and private forest lands, a team of geospatial experts show local and regional line officers a before-and-after view of the landscape…not just in images from an on-scene helicopter but in high-resolution LIDAR and comprehensive data sets captured by satellites, piloted aircraft and drones, and analyzed by artificial intelligence.

Ribbon-cutting ceremony.
(Left to right) Dr. Victor Ibeanusi, Dr. Maurice Edington, Dr. Larry Robinson, Kelly Russell and Dr. Charles Weatherford prepare to officially open the Center for Strategic Environmental Research at Florida A&M University. USDA Forest Service photo by Michelle Burnett.

If this sounds more like science fiction than reality, then take a trip to the Center for Spatial Ecology and Restoration at Florida Agriculture and Mechanical University in Tallahassee. There, USDA Forest Service employees and university staff and graduate students are working together to make this scenario a reality. Their work won’t just help land managers recover damaged forests from natural disasters; it will also improve the quality of environmental monitoring and help land managers make better strategic restoration and conservation decisions.

“This project will allow us to look way down the road in solving some problems here in Florida that could be transferred to solutions for other parts of the country and the world,” said university President Larry Robinson at a recent ribbon-cutting ceremony that officially opened the center. “It will be something I think we’ll be bragging about for years to come.”

The center is an idea that has been in the works since 2017; it received seed money from the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council in 2018. National Forests in Florida Supervisor Kelly Russell remembers when agency employees Paul Medley and Jason Drake started talking to her about the project.

“They’re so smart and they were so excited about it that I knew it was a great thing, and definitely something we should pursue,” said Russell.

Medley and Drake are currently on a hiatus from their day jobs to focus on the center full time. Through a participating agreement finalized in 2018, the center/university team is working on:

  • Using imagery and LiDAR from satellites, piloted aircraft and drones to estimate forest structure and condition and hydrologic conditions;
  • Developing new internet of things field-to-cloud workflows for environmental monitoring;
  • Creating new spatial decision support tools to help land managers make strategic restoration and conservation decisions; and
  • Advancing new cost-effective, operational drone-based techniques to inventory/monitor forest conditions and to rapidly assess impacts from natural disasters.
Joe St. Peter launches a drone.
Florida A&M University employee Joe St. Peter launches a drone at a study site on the Apalachicola National Forest. USDA Forest Service photo by Paul Medley.

The center team isn’t just focusing on science and technology, it’s also concentrating on an important human component as well: Mentoring and training the next generation of geospatial natural resource professionals.

“The work here will create opportunities for our graduate students…so FAMU can expand its capacity to produce highly trained graduates in the workforce in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math),” said Maurice Edington, university provost and vice president for academic affairs, at the center’s ribbon-cutting.

The list of partners working with the staff at the center is like a “Who’s Who” of science and technology gurus, including Microsoft Corp., Davis Instruments, Pix4D, TechTrend, SenseFly, the University of Florida, Southern Research Station, Rocky Mountain Research Station, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service–Florida and multiple Florida state agencies.

“This has been a great opportunity for us to work with the university and bring in students from all over the world,” said Russell. “We’re very grateful for this opportunity and look forward to some really good results.”