Snow, Bitterlich, and Tea on the Tailgate - Inventory Work in Siberia

by Steve Fairweather

Forest Inventory Systems Manager
 Mason, Bruce, & Girard, Inc.

In February of this year I found myself in Tomsk, a city of 600,000 people in western Siberia. I was there as a consulting forester on behalf of a consortium of investors considering a forest products manufacturing venture there, and my job was to verify the inventory.

The forest inventory was developed and maintained by the Ministry of Natural Resources, which in Russia is a branch of the military. So on this particular morning I was standing across the table from a General in the Russian army, dressed in his uniform with medals and ribbons, looking both perturbed and apprehensive about the prospects of this American stranger taking a look at his inventory and passing judgment on the accuracy of his records. He was flanked by several businessmen with a large interest in the outcome of our deliberations. We were joined by our interpreter, Natasha, a Russian who had spent some time studying in Japan and London, with a pretty good command of English.

After shaking hands and exchanging greetings we sat down around the conference table and started talking about what we intended to do over the next few days. "We" included myself and Ken Vroman from MB&G, and our cruisers, who would be coming in a couple of weeks. The basic idea was to gain an understanding of how the inventory was arranged, how the data had been collected, and how it was maintained, and then design a sampling scheme to verify that what was in the books was actually on the ground. Our understanding was that the inventory was stand based, and basically consisted of cubic meters by species, with no breakdowns by product or grade; so another goal was to develop a way to take their inventory volumes and redefine them in more detail.

As the biometrician on this project I had great plans to select a sample of stands using PPS sampling from a sorted list, cruise those stands, and use ratio estimation to develop an opinion about the accuracy of the inventory. I had used this approach in past projects, and it worked well.

The rub is that this requires a list of stands with their areas and/or volumes. After talking with the General for a while, it became clear that we were going to have to come up with a Plan B. When I explained what I intended to do, he started laughing (politely), and explained through the interpreter that (1) there were about one million stands in the area of interest, and (2) there was no list, and no computer files from which a list could be established. In fact, none of the inventory data was in any kind of computerized system.

What we did have to work with was a room of about 600 books with inventory data broken out by ownership, compartment, and stand. For each stand there were two or three typewritten lines of data, including total cubic meters by species, hectares, whether or not this was productive forest, and notes about the stand made by the cruiser - "wet ground", "good for berries", etc. We had 600 books describing the inventory on 45 million acres in about 1 million stands, spread over an area about the size of Oregon and Washington. In cubic meters. In Russian.

The General knew we had a problem. So did I, but I told myself this wasn't a problem, this was an opportunity. Still, it was going to be a late night coming up with Plan B.

The General was curious about how our cruisers would do their work. He was a forester by training, and was very familiar with basic cruising and inventory work. I explained that we planned to use prism plots. He didn't understand. I tried the term "variable radius". Nope. I drew pictures, but they didn't help. Finally I said "Bitterlich", which he understood.

He dismissed that idea, explaining to me that our folks would be on a single plot all day long, because so many trees would be tally trees. I explained that our cruisers would be picking a basal area factor that would give us an average of 5 to 8 tally trees per plot. This idea seemed totally foreign to him, and it turned out that he had been working under a policy that dictated a single BAF, and evidently a relatively low one, no matter what the stand looked like. So his cruisers had been on single plots all day long, and therefore Bitterlich sampling was not generally used.

The next surprise had to do with measuring DBH. I mentioned that our cruisers would be putting a tape around the tree to measure DBH, and he took the opportunity to correct me, explaining to the folks around the table that I meant circumference, not diameter. No, I explained, I mean diameter. It turned out that he had not heard of or seen a d-tape before, and all their diameter work had been done with calipers.

I couldn't wait to show him data recorders and lasers.

Over the next several days Ken and I and Natasha huddled over the 600 inventory books and slowly put a cruise plan together. We got to know the General a little better each day, and by the end of our visit we had developed some mutual respect and trust. We spent a great day in the woods on an active logging job, brushing snow off the stumps and counting rings. We even had tea on the tailgate of his jeep, and swapped lies about adventures in the woods. We made jokes, we laughed, and we learned a lot about each other. Our cruisers had the same experience a few weeks later when they were paired up with Russian cruisers and spent some long days in the woods.

In the end we did come up with a plan to verify the inventory (but that is the subject of another article). All in all, this was a great experience, and it drove home the point that it's not the technology - it's the people.

Originally published October 2002

Return to Home
Back to
Guest Index