Eye in the sky: My first forest health flight

by | Feb 1, 2024

By Philip Jackson, Public Information Officer for the N.C. Forest Service

Philip Jackson, public information officer, N.C Forest Service.

In the more than two years that I’ve held the role of public information officer for the N.C Forest Service, I’ve yet to see or experience any form of free time, down period or boredom as others may occasionally encounter in their respective careers. It’s been wide-open and gung-ho since day one. And that’s no exaggeration. Nov. 29, 2021, my first day with the division, I walked into an agency that was enacting a statewide ban on open burning in the midst of an active fall wildfire season where multiple incidents were ongoing. Since that day, I’ve been able to sample most of the programs and services that we offer by serving on a handful of incident management teams for wildfire response, assisting with prescribed fire operations, meeting with private landowners to learn about their long-term forest management plans and goals, visiting staff at our state forests and nursery to learn the daily operations and observe flight demonstrations while witnessing the opening of our newest aviation hangar in Duplin County. One area of service that I’ve had little to no involvement with, is our Forest Health Program.

Phil Owens (left), a pilot with the N.C. Forest Service Aviation Program, and forest health specialist Jim Moeller (right) utilize the digital mobile sketcher to pinpoint forest health pests.

N.C. Forest Service Forest Health staff monitor all forest health issues across North Carolina. They conduct specially designed surveys for forest pests which pose unique risk or high hazard to our state’s forest resources. These surveys target forest pests that are currently present in North Carolina as well as exotic pests that are not currently found in the state, but whose arrival could have catastrophic consequences. The N.C. Forest Service continually monitors all forest health threats through aerial and ground surveys, permanent monitoring plots and communication and interaction with private landowners. To get a better understanding of what lengths our forest health staff go to ensure the most accurate data is recorded, I volunteered myself as a passenger on an upcoming aerial forest health survey.

I arrived at a local airport early on a Tuesday morning where I linked up with seasoned forest health specialists Wayne Langston and Jim Moeller — who are basically responsible for half the state — covering portions of the Piedmont to the North Carolina coast. I received a download of what the day’s objective would entail as we waited for Phil Owens, a N.C. Forest Service pilot stationed out of our central aviation base in Sanford, to touchdown in a Cessna 182 just long enough for us to pile in and head east. With the strict weight limits for this type of aircraft, carrying roughly 528lbs. of fuel, there was about 582lbs. remaining for passengers. I’m certain that there’s a collection of four grown men somewhere out there who do not exceed that weight limit, but we were not them. Wayne proceeded with ground surveys for the day while Phil, Jim and I were wheels up.

This was one flight in a series of flights where the goal was to survey 20% of the state to detect forest health disturbances by identifying areas of tree defoliation and mortality, beetle attacks, storm damage and saltwater intrusion. Cruising altitude to the coast was at a cool and comfortable 5,500 feet. Upon reaching our destination, we descended to an elevation between 800 and 1,000 feet for a closer look and better prospect for accurate mapping, significantly increasing the temperature within the cabin. Most days, air begins to cool roughly 4 degrees Fahrenheit per 1,000 feet of elevation gain. Using a digital mobile sketch mapper, Jim traced our steps and recorded current forest health conditions to determine how circumstances had improved, deteriorated or plateaued.

These surveys are intended to monitor forest pest populations and associated damage to ensure they remain at or below acceptable thresholds in the forest environment. Should forest health conditions exceed these thresholds, the N.C. Forest Service will respond to actively control or manage the outbreak. Surveys also act as an early warning system for forest threats. It’s essential that the arrival and establishment of forest threats are detected as quickly as possible to allow for quarantines, eradication, or other management efforts to be enacted to minimize impact of these invaders.

An area of dead or dying timber as a result of saltwater intrusion.

The orange and red colored leaves is indicative of an active beetle incursion, causing fall-like defoliation during summer months.

We observed a few isolated pockets of tree defoliation, symptoms of an ongoing beetle incursion. This was clear because the impacted area displayed deep orange and red colored leaves as you would see in the later stages of fall. However, this flight took place in early September and the surrounding area was a blanket of green forestland. Most of the data Jim recorded was of “ghost forests” that pepper our coastline due to saltwater intrusion. These “ghost forests” were once vibrant woodlands, but as seawater gradually pushes inland and begins to mix with the fresh water that these trees depend on, the saltwater leads to mortality, leaving behind dead or dying timber.

The USDA Forest Service Forest Health Monitoring (FHM) Program is a national program designed to determine the status, changes and trends in indicators of forest conditions on an annual basis. The N.C. Forest Service is a cooperator and participant in the FHM Program, and the data collected from this flight, among other flights, is used to develop approaches to address forest health issues. The FHM Program helps provide more complete and accurate information on which to base decisions and responses.

As we circled over the ocean to begin our return flight to our regular duty stations, our route offered a unique opportunity to view the rich history and aesthetic beauty found throughout Eastern North Carolina from sea turtles off the shore near Jockey’s Ridge State Park, the location of history’s first flight attempts at the Wright Brothers National Memorial, to a rumored final resting place of Blackbeard’s treasure. The mission lasted between five and six hours. Phil and Jim provided expert analysis about the flight, navigation measures, mapping strategies, future outlooks and possible courses of action to what was observed that day. My job was to ask questions, not heave into an air sickness bag and explain my experience from the backseat to help readers learn something new and understand why these surveys are necessary for the future health of North Carolina’s woodlands. I hope I have held up my end of the deal.

Insects and diseases claim more timber each year than any other forest menace. Some of this loss occurs as part of the forest’s natural life cycle. However, overall forest health can decline if this natural cycle is thrown out of balance. We value and rely on forests for a wide variety of resources that are subject to threats from forest pests, and it’s imperative that we relentlessly monitor the condition of our forest’s health and intervene when those resources are at risk. Timely and proper forest management, early detection and protective measures can reduce, or even prevent the impacts of insects and diseases on this critical natural resource that we all depend on. Routine forest health monitoring is just one way that the N.C. Forest Service works to keep North Carolina’s forests healthy.