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Eye in the sky: Finland monitors logging by satellite

A new forest surveillance service may also be used to map out damage from storms or pests.

Logging and forest carbon sinks have become a political hot potato recently. Image: Ville Honkonen

The Finnish Forest Centre has rolled out a national system of tracking forest logging by satellite. Authorities will be able to compare the maps it generates with logging notifications from landowners and timber owners.

The main purpose is ensure compliance with the Forest Act. The law is aimed at advancing the economic, ecological and socially sustainable use of forests in such a way that the nation's woodland can sustainably produce good profits while maintaining their biodiversity.

A forest owner must always file a notification of forest use before any commercial logging or other procedures in areas designated as particularly important habitats under the Forest Act.

Officials say that satellite surveillance will allow more efficient use of resources with fewer unnecessary inspection visits.

"Inspections will be targeted at areas where there is a need for field inspections and a risk of violations," says Eetu Myöhänen, a development specialist at the Finnish Forest Centre, which operates under the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.

Positive pilot

The new service has been tested over the past few years in pilot areas including Liperi, Ähtäri, the Parikkala-Savonlinna area and the southerly Uusimaa region.

For instance, monitoring in 2015-16 turned up 122 hectares that had been logged without filing the proper paperwork. However this was only 0.3 percent of the entire land area under surveillance.

In those cases, authorities found only one case where they believed the forest owner intentionally neglected to file a notification, while the other cases were chalked up to human and date-technology errors.

In June, the service was expanded to cover all of mainland Finland. Last year the Forest Centre estimated that some 550 forest use notifications are left unfiled annually. That is about one percent of the total that are filed.

While the system is so far set up to detect areas that have been clear-cut, Myöhänen expects it to be fine-tuned in future to also be able to identify forests that have been thinned.

Tracking storm and bug damage

The system was developed by the Jyväskylä-based software company Bitcomp, which also offers map-based forest information systems for timber buyers, forest service providers and forest owners' associations.

The firm's R&D manager, Sanna Härkönen, says that the satellite data can be used in other ways to quickly track environmental conditions on the ground.

"For instance, damage from storms or insects can be rapidly evaluated, as well as determining the forests' carbon sinks," she tells Yle, adding that she expects the service to be adopted outside of Finland.

"There is a need to track illegal logging and forest shrinkage in many countries," she notes.