Measuring up for a sustainable future

PhD student Jie-Lian Beh is using a surprisingly simple tool to help improve the productivity and sustainability of Australia’s plantation forests. With the help of a measuring tape, she has developed a quick and easy new way to help manage this important Australian resource.

Most wood used to build and furnish Australian homes comes from plantation forests. Better management of these forests requires consideration of fine-scale variation in soil quality across a site, says Ms Beh.

“Historically, plantation sites have been managed on a coarse scale, separated into soil quality classes that are tens of hectares in extent,” says Ms Beh. “But this overlooks the finer-scale differences in soil quality typical of most plantation sites. Improvements in our understanding of soil properties are moving us towards managing forests almost at the level of an individual tree.”

Knowing how much soil lies beneath a tree provides vital knowledge about how much water, nutrients and space is available for growth. “This knowledge allows us to decide how many trees to plant, or how much fertiliser is needed on a particular site,” says Ms Beh.

But the current method of fine-scale soil sampling isn’t feasible for Australia’s two million hectares of plantation forests, says Ms Beh. “The usual method of mapping soil properties – getting a shovel and digging down – is extremely labour and time intensive, which means it’s incredibly expensive.”

A computer model developed by Ms Beh can predict soil depth at a fraction of the cost of the current method, simply by measuring the shape of existing tree trunks in the plantation – this is where the measuring tape comes in.

She hopes her model will lead to more sustainable management strategies that avoid depletion of soil resources.

“Building roads and bringing in heavy machinery during harvesting causes damage to the soil. This model allows us to say: ‘That road should be built 100 metres to the north, where the soil can better handle high traffic’.”

Ms Beh’s model was developed in collaboration with the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Forestry, the CSIRO, State Forests NSW, and the Australian National University.

Affiliation with a CRC gives students an invaluable opportunity to work with people in industry, says Ms Beh. “I wanted to maintain a connection with the real world. You could discover something really useful, but if you don’t collaborate with people in industry, it might never get out there.”

Contact information

Ms Jie-Lian Beh
Phone: (02) 6125 2583
Mobile: 0433 770 384
Skype: Jie-Lian
Email: [email protected]

Professor Peter Kanowski
Phone: (02) 6125 2667
Mobile: 0416 249 004
Email: [email protected]

Cooperative Research Centre for Forestry

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Ms Jie-Lian Beh measuring a tree trunk

Ms Jie-Lian Beh measuring a tree trunk.

Ms Jie-Lian Beh digging

Ms Jie-Lian Beh digging.