By Dr Peter Gillard of the Department of Primary Industry Water and the Environment, Mt Pleasant Laboratories, Tasmania and Dr Sarah Munks of the Forest Practices Board, Tasmania.
Forestry in Tasmania is big business and, in common with many other democratic States, there are the conflicting politics of business versus conservation. The Forestry Practices Act is legislation that allows for forestry activities, but requires that a Code of Practice, designed to achieve sustainable forest management, must be followed by the forest managers. This legislation is administered by the Forest Practices Board (FPB). When a forest is to be logged, the forest managers must prepare a Forest Practices Plan for certification by the FPB. One of the more complex areas that has to be addressed is that of managing threatened fauna. The FPB produces a manual that has information about where threatened species occur and a generalised description of how forest practices should proceed. The forest managers find interpretation of the generalised information difficult, and before we developed Threatened Fauna Adviser, they were required to request a recommendation from the Senior Zoologist of the FPB, who in turn had to seek approval from the Senior Zoologist in the Department of Parks and Wildlife. All of this took time and caused a bottleneck in administration.
Knowledge of the threatened fauna and the recommendations needed for forest operations was already known by the Senior Zoologist, and other specialists working in Tasmania. Each species is either known to occur at a particular site, or known to be within its bio-geographical range. The presence of a threatened species need not prevent a forest operation, but it does affect the way in which the operation should best be conducted.
We found that the best way of proceeding was to develop decision trees in XpertRule®. For most species, the decision trees were needed only a single task, only one has a back chained task. The variables in the task are about the type of forest operation and factors that will identify the quality of habitat for the threatened species. The outcome of the task is the management recommendation for that particular situation. There are 31 listed threatened fauna species, and each may have 5 – 10 possible recommendations. Typically, there may be three or four threatened species in any harvest area.
We have included illustrations of threatened species on the dialogs relevant to those species. This is made possible by the facility for capturing bitmaps on dialogs available in XpertRule.
Implementation and connection with MS-Word
For each threatened species there is a Microsoft Word document with sections containing the recommendations. Each recommendation is bookmarked (Para_1, Para_2, etc.). In XpertRule, there is a procedure at the beginning of the task for the species that assigns the filename for that species; at the outcome of the task there is another procedure that assigns the relevant bookmark. All species tasks forward chain to a Report task that uses OLE2 to open word and paste the bookmarked recommendation with the following command:
There is comprehensive Help attached to the program. This has context sensitive information about the definition of the many attributes in the application, but also there are topics on how to use it, information about the species themselves, plus notes and instructions that have been issued by the FPB relevant to the management of threatened species.
The Help was initially written in a Word document, and then compiled into a .hlp file using HDK, a program developed by Virtual Media Technology (www.virtualmedia.com.au).
Value to the Forestry companies and the Forest Practices Board
The application has been installed on about 50 computers within forestry companies or forestry contractors in Tasmania. The value to these operators is that the recommendations given by the Expert System are agreed between the FPB and the Department of Parks and Wildlife. When the foresters forward the recommendation and their Forest Practices Plan to the FPB they need wait only a week before proceeding. This saves many weeks of delay in the time between application to log and approval.
The Forest Practices Board has been able to save much of their professional zoologists time in processing applications. They claim that this application has saved them from having to appoint extra zoologists. Indeed there were not the funds available to appoint these people, and without the application they would probably have further increased delays in processing applications.
An important outcome of the development of Threatened Fauna Adviser is that the zoologists have had the opportunity to think through all the possible scenarios and write appropriate recommendations, rather than having to produce case by case recommendations for each application to harvest timber.
Maintenance and upgrades
A major benefit of the application is that it has relieved the Zoologists from the FPB from the administrative chore of providing recommendations for all timber harvesting and forest operations and provided additional time for them to research and monitor what is happening in the forests. New knowledge is continually being gathered about the management of threatened species. Also the listing of threatened species changes, some are de-listed, but more are added to the threatened species list.
With XpertRule it is possible to print out the decision trees that are built during development and this has been useful in communicating with the domain experts when they are not present near our computer. Now that we have this application, it will be continually updated.
This expert system by the Tasmanian Government won a first prize in the Agricultural Software Competition at the Royal Easter Show, Sydney.
This story was also published in PC AI magazine