Aspen Tree TrunksDec 22, 2014 • [By Larisa Serbina & Holly Miller, USGS Fort Collins Science Center] SilviaTerra is a four-year-old start-up company with five full-time employees that is contributing to the change in the way forests are managed in the United States. The company provides next-generation, highly accurate forest inventory data to fifteen users of various sizes. The customer base includes national and international timber companies. SilviaTerra is profitable and continues to grow.

The launch and success of this company are in no small part due to the free availability of Landsat imagery. Other technologies are utilized in the development of the final product, although this work could not be accomplished without Landsat’s free availability of red, green, blue and infrared bands. Potentially, SPOT imagery could be used as an alternative. However, the cost of using SPOT for a nation-wide inventory would be prohibitively high for the company. “With a full-retail price of $3,666 per scene and the need for an estimated 6,000 scenes to cover the U.S., the total cost without annual updates could amount to $22 million,” says Max Nova, founder and Lead Engineer at SilviaTerra. Even with potential bulk discounts, the cost of alternative imagery would create roadblocks for this start-up. Additionally, SPOT has higher spectral resolution, which Nova notes would impose more processing and analysis time. Thus, Landsat imagery, due to its spectral resolution and free and open data policy, remains the most preferred option for this start-up.

Landsat has enabled SilviaTerra to set and achieve big goals within the forest industry. The company plans to generate a complete forest inventory for the entire U.S. The company strives to have the inventory available for a variety of users and update it yearly. Nova points out that SilviaTerra helps forest managers make better decisions through the availability of better data. For any forest larger than 10 acres, SilviaTerra can determine the diameters and species of trees in that area with 95% accuracy for trees per acre and basal area using Landsat, National Agriculture Imagery Program (NAIP), and Digital Elevation Models (DEMs). This assessment capability not only allows forest companies to determine optimal cutting, planting, and fertilizing schedules to optimize profits, but also enables them to comply with complex environmental regulations.

Nova also mentions that SilviaTerra is aiming to expand its customer base expanding beyond the larger timber companies to private land owners. Most forests in the U.S. are owned by small private landowners and only a small fraction (10-20%) has a documented forest management plan. These plans must be based on forest inventory, which is often cost-prohibitive for small landowners to obtain. SilviaTerra is working with local forestry consultants across the U.S. to provide individual landowners with the data they need to manage and improve their land, something that would not be economically viable for SilviaTerra to provide without free and open access to Landsat imagery. The company envisions a future where every acre of forest in the United States has a well-informed management plan.

Nova, Max, SilviaTerra, (oral and written commun., 2014)

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