Envisioning the Forest

John Sessions coaxes maximum efficiency out of the intensely complex puzzle of forestry with a careful eye to minimal ecological impact. (Photo: Jim Carroll)
John Sessions coaxes maximum efficiency out of the intensely complex puzzle of forestry with a careful eye to minimal ecological impact. (Photo: Jim Carroll)

By Lee Anna Sherman

John Sessions likes to refer to forestry as “a bio-energy puzzle.” Like a lot of 21st-century puzzles, its solutions are digital 
and mathematical.

“Forest landscape planning, as it is known today, was not possible before the advent of high-speed computers, geographic information systems, modern algorithms and graphic interfaces,” says the holder of the endowed Richard Strachan Chair of Forest Operations Management at OSU.

Translation: Long-term sustainability for Oregon’s forest industry now relies on data, knowledge, software and advanced computing power. Harvesting wood in sensitive ecosystems makes up one set of puzzle pieces. The other has to do with earning a living in a volatile economy and a competitive world. Trying to achieve these goals — protecting the environment 
while producing timber products — can cause tension.

Professor Sessions’ mission, indeed his passion, is figuring out how to meld the myriad elements of nature, regulation, jurisdiction and commerce to maximize efficiency without sacrificing ecology. To do this, he uses a method called “combinatorial optimization.” Boiled down, that simply means “getting the best out of the most.” In support of Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) efforts, he has designed a software program called Harvest and Habitat, which crunches voluminous sets of data on possible cutting schedules, forest structure (age, species and density of trees) and wood transport for 632,000 acres of Northwest forests. The resulting simulations are used by ODF to guide management decisions in seven districts, including Tillamook, Astoria and Forest Grove. Foresters use the models to compare one harvest strategy against another — before bringing in the loggers and the loaders.

But simulation software is just the tip of the Douglas fir for Sessions, a Distinguished Professor of Forestry. He brings a lifetime of forest-science experience (including managing 4,000 workers on a Brazilian pulp plantation and consulting for 15 countries worldwide) to his astonishing workload at OSU. Admitting, with some embarrassment, to working 12 hours every single day except Christmas and Thanksgiving, the youthful 65-year-old can’t fathom a more satisfying way to spend his earthly time allotment. Academia satisfies his two deepest drives: “I like solving problems, and I like teaching students.”

The problems he solves include the mundane, even minute, details of day-to-day forestry: the logistics of getting logs out 
of the woods and to the mills in the quickest, cheapest and eco-friendliest way. Often, he says, it comes down to scheduling — of harvests, of crews, of trucks. As part of a proposed Oregon Innovation Council initiative, Sessions will study the comings and goings of log trucks to help minimize wasteful trips.

Quite simply, inefficiency sticks in his craw.

“Why,” he wonders with a note of irritation, “would you ever see two empty log trucks, or two loaded log trucks, going down the road in opposite directions? You say, ‘Is there a way they could spend less time traveling unloaded as they move from job to job?’ We’re looking at using advanced algorithms, along with GPS and satellite phones, to help us assign the trucks more efficiently.”

To support OSU forest management research, contact the OSU Foundation