GPS Know-How: Tools and Tips for Owners of Forestland

Riparian Easement Forester Whitney Butler
DNR Riparian Easement Forester Whitney Butler using a Garmin 64st. Photo: Chris Briggs/DNR.

Can the GPS (Global Positioning System) be an effective and useful tool for the small forest landowner? At a recent WSU Extension Family Forest Field Day in Sequim, Wash., I had the opportunity to speak with several small forest landowners who are using their smartphones, mapping software and certain GPS devices in a variety of ways on their properties.

The manner in which a GPS device is useful for landowners will depend on the landowner’s goals and needs. Also important is the amount of forestland owned and the individual’s familiarity with their property and its natural resources. During our discussion a few common topics and questions surfaced, including GPS accuracy, locating property lines, anticipating the impacts of stream buffers to proposed timber harvest areas, and identifying resources and recreation opportunities.

Although there are many options to choose from, a prominent example of a user-friendly GPS device is one of the Garmin 64 series models. These units are usually in the $200-$350 range, maintain a relatively simple layout for the casual user and are associated with Basecamp mapping software, a free application for Mac/Windows computers that comes pre-loaded with various basemaps (satellite imagery, topography, etc.). Smartphones also come with built-in GPS receivers and typically have some kind of navigation software preloaded (Google Maps, Apple Maps, etc.).

  • Accuracy: Garmin 64 series devices are highly accurate and now utilize both GPS (U.S. based) and GLONASS (Global Navigation Satellite System, Russian based) technology, with many users reporting accuracy down to ten feet. Capable of tapping into over 24 satellites, the devices maintain strong signals even through dense tree canopies, brush and inclement weather. GPS receivers in smartphones also are capable of accurate readings with the help of available cellular networks.
  • markers of existing property lines.
    A GPS device can help you find markers of existing property lines. Photo: Chris Briggs/DNR.

    Property Lines: A Garmin 64 series device can be useful for locating the edge of your property by guiding you to existing marked property lines and corners. Look for blazed or painted trees, old flagging and/or metal posts. I recommend taking a compass with you or using the compass app on your smartphone. This will help to orient yourself with the direction you’re traveling and where you are in relation to your destination (most maps and GPS devices are automatically oriented north). It is important to note that only a formal survey completed by a professional licensed surveyor can be legally used to identify the true location of a property line.

  • Timber Harvest and Stream Buffers: Dropping waypoints every 50 feet along the length of a known fish stream, perennial stream or protected wetland perimeter can help you get a sense of how the applicable no-harvest riparian or wetland buffer will impact the location of your potential forest roads, landings and harvest unit size and shape. Viewing the waypoints on your computer (through Basecamp for example) can help you develop your management and harvest strategy. The complexity of your proposed timber harvest and your level of comfort navigating Washington state’s Forest Practices Rules may lead you to consider hiring a consulting forester to complete your harvest. For a directory list of consultant forestry companies from the WSU Extension Forestry page click here.
  • Unique Features: Perhaps you know of a unique tree or rock formation on your property that you’d like to build a trail to for a memorable picnic spot. Using your Garmin, take a waypoint at the site, or on your smartphone tap and hold your finger once on the screen of your navigation app to drop a pin. This will allow you to easily find or direct others to that spot again and plan your connecting trail and surrounding management plans accordingly.
  • Tracks: Another useful tool on Garmin devices, Tracks, allows you to continuously collect data on your path traveled in the form of a viewable polyline. This can be useful for tracking what and how much ground you’ve covered on your property. Consider using Tracks to map the outer edge of a wetland, calculate acreages, and/or create maps of existing trails or roads by viewing and editing the tracks in Basecamp.

The short- and long-term goals of your property and forestland should dictate whether or not a new GPS device is a practical tool for you. The more diverse your property is, the more likely it is that a device like one of the Garmin 64 series models can help you organize the features of your landscape to further define your forest management goals and priorities.

By Chris Briggs, Riparian Easement Forester, DNR Small Forest Landowner Office,