(Robot) Eye in the Sky: Can LiDAR Scanning Help Protect BC’s Old Growth?

words :: Nikkey Dawn.

To our ancestors who dwelled and fought for survival amongst the megafauna, old-growth trees may have seemed utterly unremarkable. When everything is gigantic, do you even notice a towering 1,000-year old conifer tree?


The trick is finding the balance between old-growth love and the necessity of the log yard. GARRETT GROVE

article continues below

As the wild shrunk, these trees held firm. Come across a stand now and neurons start firing, “imagine what this tree has seen… look at the size of that burl … can I even see the top?” It’s no wonder we’ll spend hours hiking or skinning through the backcountry to be amongst these towering giants. There is a sense of awe in these trees, one that takes us back to another time, before our relationship with nature became muddied with profit margins.

And if there’s one thing that has spurred this change in relationship, it is technology. While old-growth trees themselves may not be shrinking, stands of them are. Only ten per cent of the original old-growth forest on Vancouver Island remains—and, less than half of it is protected. The other half, awaits potential logging in the timber harvest land base.

With government-regulated allowable annual cut rates, logging companies are becoming more efficient than ever in determining the density and value of the forests they might potentially log using a surveying method called LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging).


Perspective. Where one sees profits, another sees value. ANDREW STRAIN


The drone- or plane-assisted LiDAR produces detailed 3D maps using light waves, allowing logging corporations to quickly determine the height and diameter of trees in a potential cut block without stepping a foot—or boot—on the ground. The profit jackpot? Big, thick, old-growth fir, spruce and cedar.

TJ Watts is the co-founder of Ancient Rainforest Alliance (AFA). He too hunts for these trees, but with different motives—the AFA lobbies for protection of old-growth stands across BC. However, they have to find them first. Most LiDAR data catalogues from corporations and Natural Resources Canada are withheld from public access. And with LiDAR being too expensive for most conservation groups, they’re left to the time-consuming, “old-fashioned” methods of combing through satellite imagery and bushwhacking to potential sites.

In a David-versus-Goliath race Watts says, “oftentimes we (AFA and logging companies) are looking at the same places. I frequently arrive (at a stand of old-growth) and think ‘this is an exceptional spot,’ but sure enough there is either flagging tape or machines there—or it’s already been cut down.”

Once flagging tape is up, it’s very hard to stop logging plans in place.




There is plenty of science explaining how old-growth forests are vital to ecosystems within BC. The mere existence of these ancient giants can benefit salmon populations,  improve the quality of air we breathe and contribute to forest fire reduction. So how do we ensure their conservation? For the first time in the history of logging, the technology used to help cut down a forest can also help protect it. LiDAR can reveal valuable data such as the character of terrain, biodiversity information, watershed locations and more.

In California, Save the Redwoods League is utilizing LiDAR to its full potential. The group, made up of government agencies and conservation organizations, uses the tech to map and identify vulnerable areas in the famous forest. The data collected even allows them to forecast and mitigate potential hazards like landslides that could clog important salmon spawning creeks.


For the first time in the history of logging, the technology used to help cut down a forest can also help protect it.


Here in BC, this kind of technology could be revolutionary. Adam Olsen is the MLA for Saanich North and the Islands and a vocal advocate for old-growth forests. “We can get down to understanding what trees are where and how many, and how to put a plan in place to log it sustainably,” he says. “It isn’t a tech problem, it’s a human problem.”



To move forward, Oslen thinks we need to decolonize our relationship with nature, and that the provincial government should help communities pigeonholed by logging to diversify their local economies. Old-growth logging is the number one issue he hears about from constituents, which demonstrates the passion and will to protect these trees.

But Watts stresses time is running out to protect the BC giants. He says what’s needed is “for people to believe that they truly do have the power to make a difference.” LiDAR and the best technology available can only inform us—real change will have to come from citizens applying pressure on their government by calling, emailing and petitioning elected officials. The role of LiDAR in the logging industry illustrates one of the greatest challenges of contemporary times: how to avoid using our own intelligence and technological advancements against ourselves.

Check out the latest on the AFA here.

Article excerpted from ML Coast Mountains, Fall/Winter ’19.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.