Southern Perspective

The official blog of the Southern Group of State Foresters

David Arnold

Forest Inventory Analysis Through the Eyes of Tennessee State Forester David Arnold

November 5th, 2020
State Forester and Assistant Commissioner
Tennessee Department of Agriculture

Forest Inventory Analysis (FIA) simply at its core is the national census of all forested lands. In the South, this is conducted through a partnership between the USDA Forest Service and state forestry agencies, with states contributing substantial human and financial resources. Only the FIA Program conducts comprehensive forest resource inventories in the U.S. regardless of land ownership. It is the only program with “boots on the ground” verification and data collection of species, health and defects of trees plus forest regeneration. 

David Arnold, while Tennessee’s first FIA program coordinator, measuring a large butternut tree with 18 inch diameter in Jackson County, TN.
David Arnold, while Tennessee’s first FIA program coordinator, measuring a large butternut tree with 18 inch diameter in Jackson County, TN.

I was recently asked “What are the top three things you think people should know about FIA, cruisers, and the data your program collects?”

1. This data has been collected since the late 1940s and early 1950s (this is the time frame in TN).  There is a tremendous sense of history and pride when you visit a plot and see plot center pins placed by different crews. When I was collecting data, a plot might have four or five plot center pins, meaning this exact same location was measured by four or five different crews through the decades. Each time a plot is measured by FIA cruisers, they place a new steel pin in the center. When I first started in FIA, each pin represented a 10-year measurement period. As a “data mule” for FIA you become a member of a pretty special fraternity. Every FIA cruiser has stories to tell of their adventures in collecting FIA data. You just have to wonder about (and wish you could meet and share stories with) the adventures of the crews that each plot center pin represents.

2. FIA data is more important now than ever. Being able to characterize each of our state’s forests allows us to tell the individual story of our state’s forests through time. This information informs decisions to locate new or expand current multi-million-dollar forest industry facilities, bringing economic activity to some of the South’s most economically depressed rural landscapes. This information molds local, state, regional, and national forest policy decisions. This information helps us better understand the conditions of our forests through time. We can then better understand the agents of change that might be stressing or improving our forests through time, allowing us to better develop the strategies and actions to keep our forests and all associated benefits productive, healthy, and resilient on the landscape.

3. FIA data and the resulting stories we can tell from FIA data are the results of hard-working dedicated personnel. State crews collect the information under stringent quality standards. The data is then delivered to the USDA Forest Service for validation, compilation, summarization, analysis, and publication. This information is provided through a close-knit partnership between the southern states and the USDA Forest Service Southern Research Station as part of a national collaboration. Everyone involved in this partnership is passionate and dedicated to the mission of collecting information to improve the understanding of the South’s forests. The journey to better understand our forests through inventory begins with the field cruiser or “data mule”. They perform their task under extreme weather and topographical conditions; experience the excitement of chiggers, ticks, snakes, and sometimes larger animals; and interact with some of our region’s most interesting human characters. If you ever encounter an FIA cruiser in your travels give them an acknowledgment of thanks. Their work quite possibly resulted in the house you live in, the book you read, or the protection of your favorite forest.  

Follow the adventures and unique locations in our FIA foresters’ daily lives on social media, #MyOfficeToday, where every day brings different scenery and challenges in capturing the nation’s forest census. Follow #MyOfficeToday on SGSF Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.



USDA Forest Service Southern Research Station FIA – Find interactive reports and timber product output reports for the Southern states.

USDA Forest Service Forest Inventory and Analysis – Overview of national FIA program



Southern Timber Supply Analysis Application - The Southern Timber Supply Analysis Application uses maps that allow users to estimate the amount of timberland, standing timber, and growth and removals within a user-specified distance or trucking time of any site in the Southern United States. Data is updated regularly and readily shows areas that have an abundant and sustainable supply of forest resources.

EVALIDator – Produce a large variety of population estimates and their sampling errors based on the current FIA database



You may be intrigued to learn David Arnold was one of the original SGSF FIA coordinators who helped fashion the FIA partnership between the Southern Group of State Foresters and USDA Forest Service Southern Research Station. David became Tennessee’s state forester in 2018 and represents the Forest Inventory Analysis Committee on the Southern Group of State Foresters. Read his full bio here.

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