MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources wants to make an inventory of every tree in the entire state.

Our forests are a treasure trove of information, but you first have to know exactly what’s going on inside to unlock it.

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What was once done by hand is now done with the help of planes and lasers, according to Doug Tillma with the DNR.

“It was a single forester going out in the woods,” Tillma said.

What took foresters 20 years is now possible in less than five, thanks to lidar technology.

“What lidar does is it uses a pulse laser to just paint a 3D picture,” he said.

That laser modeling then creates a map of elevations — really a 3D picture of what’s going on across the state.

(credit: MN DNR)

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After the lidar map is overlayed with aerial photos that add color and shape, Jennifer Corcoran goes to work.

“We’re in the middle of collecting about 10 million acres of lidar and photography in the north,” Corcoran said. “We can definitely see harvests that have occurred or changes in the water level. And it’s really cool [laughs]!”

Cool, and useful for things like fire prevention strategy, carbon storage planning, and even for spotting sick trees.

“Let’s say for example that emerald ash borer gets into the forest, we would be able to pick up that type of change,” Corcoran said.

But it’s not all lasers and computer screens. Real-life foresters are still out there, collecting sample data to pair with the lidar map.

“The two together is what creates that really accurate inventory,” Tillma said. “We can do so much more than we could have before.”

The dense canopies and spectrum of species in our forests are powerful yet vulnerable, and ever-changing. Keeping track of those changes helps us help Mother Nature.

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The United States Geological Survey helps fund the project. Doing the scanning over time will help the DNR compare losses or changes.

Erin Hassanzadeh