Forestry technician Kyle Fredrickson got a toy helicopter to practice for his job with the Aitkin County Soil and Water Conservation District.
That’s because he was assigned to operate a drone to use for conservation purposes and wanted to practice with a cheaper toy that could handle some crashes. He came to the job in 2019 with the main focus being writing stewardship plans, working with landowners on developing management plans for their property.
When state funding was secured that same year, SWCD purchased a Mavic Pro drone and Fredrickson was its operator.
Upon request, Fredrickson inventories property and helps landowners create plans for their property. The landowners can use those plans to enroll in a program called the Sustainable Forest Incentive Act (SFIA).
The SFIA provides incentive payments to encourage sustainable use of forest lands. Property owners with qualifying lands are eligible to enroll in this program. Property owners can receive a payment for each acre of qualifying forest land they enroll in SFIA. In return, they agree not to develop the land and to follow a forest management plan while they are in the program. All enrolled land must remain in SFIA for at least eight, 20, or 50 years depending on their recorded covenant length.
The first landowner plan Fredrickson worked on was a 700-acre plot of land.
“That was challenging,” he said.
USING THE DRONE
Steve Hughes, Aitkin County SWCD district manager. and other district managers had been talking about the use of drones for some time. Hughes decided to tap into state funds that were intended to improve delivery of services. When he approached his board, all thought it would be money well spent.
With the help and research of Jake Granfors of Pheasants Forever, the Mavic Pro was purchased by the SWCD at a cost of $2,500 which included some add-ons. It has a high-quality camera and travels about 400 feet off the ground for up to five miles. Fredrickson said the drone can fly for approximately 20 minutes or less if the temperature is low. Practicing with a toy helicopter helped Fredrickson learn to maneuver the craft. He also took online training and had to become FAA-certified for unmanned aircraft. Sam Seybold, Aitkin County ag inspector, is also certified.
The one-person operating drone is used primarily for forest inventory and studying the types of trees, tree health and potential harvest plans. Fredrickson also uses it for education, creating videos on forest management and developing virtual classrooms.
Hughes said the drone was more than paid for after the first project SWCD contracted with the St. Croix River Association. With the narration of Aitkin County forester, Bob Kangas, Fredrickson created a video about forest management, including oak regeneration. That project netted $5,000, Hughes said.
“To cross a wetland, it could take two to three hours to reach the site,” said Hughes. “The drone can do it in five minutes, plus we can’t get that perspective from the ground.”
One example of conservation use is a recent project on Lake Minnewawa where bark beetles are killing red pine.
“We got clear images of the area affected,” said Fredrickson. “We can use these images to make better decisions on which trees need to be removed and where to place pheromone traps to pull beetles out of the trees we hope to save.”
In another instance, an infestation of Bohemian knotweed was discovered and treated. The drone will revisit this area in the spring to see if anything has changed.
Other conservation uses are buffer compliance, shoreline issues, timber harvest area use, monitoring emergent vegetation and wetland issues.
“In partnership with the NRCS, a 14-acre field was treated with herbicide and planted with natural pollinator habitat,” Fredrickson said. “The drone gives us a better understanding of what needs to be done.”
Some drones are also capable of throwing flames for fire breaks and operating LiDAR, which stands for Light Detection and Ranging, a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure ranges (variable distances) to Earth.
“Drones can bring us images from inaccessible areas, that allow us to
do our jobs faster and better,” noted Fredrickson. “Drones replace a lot of legwork and will make us more efficient going forward.”
Fredrickson grew up in the Elko area and earned a degree in communications with an emphasis in film at U.W. River Falls, Wisconsin. Some of his friends went to Taiwan and Fredrickson “figured it was a good place to start.” He taught English and learned the Chinese language. When he returned to the U.S., he studied ecology and forest ecology and management at Michigan Technical University. The program was linked with service in the Peace Corps so he went to Mexico for two years as a volunteer in environmental education.
“I worked in a tree nursery dedicated to reforestation and continued a model of sustainability that another volunteer had started,” he said.
He also taught water conservation and product development at a college.
Upon return, he lived in his minivan for a semester to finish his degree at Michigan Tech.
He returned to Mexico, lived in his van, and became a fisherman until he was called home to help his brother.
After helping out at home for a few months, he took a number of odd jobs until he was hired by Aitkin SWCD in 2019.
“Otherwise I’d be living on a beach as a bum for decades,” he joked.