Using LiDAR to develop high-resolution reference models of forest structure and spatial pattern

Haley L. Wiggins, Cara R. Nelson, Andrew J. Larson, Hugh D. Safford

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

36 Scopus citations


Successful restoration of degraded forest landscapes requires reference models that adequately capture structural heterogeneity at multiple spatial scales and for specific landforms. Despite this need, managers often lack access to reliable reference information, in large part because field-based methods for assessing variation in forest structure are costly and inherently suffer from limited replication and spatial coverage and, therefore, yield limited insights about the ecological structure of reference forests at landscape scales. LiDAR is a cost-effective alternative that can provide high-resolution characterizations of variation in forest structure among landform types. However, managers and researchers have been reluctant to use LiDAR for characterizing structure because of low confidence in its capacity to approximate actual tree distributions. By calculating bias in LiDAR estimates for a range of tree-height cutoffs, we improved LiDAR's ability to capture structural variability in terms of individual trees. We assessed bias in the processed LiDAR data by comparing datasets of field-measured and LiDAR-detected trees of various height classes in terms of overall number of trees and estimates of structure and spatial pattern in an important contemporary reference forest, the Sierra de San Pedro Martir National Park, Baja California, Mexico. Agreement between LiDAR- and field-based estimates of tree density, as well as estimates of forest structure and spatial pattern, was maximized by removing trees less than 12 m tall. We applied this height cutoff to LiDAR-detected trees of our study landscape, and asked if forest structure and spatial pattern varied across topographic settings. We found that canyons, shallow northerly, and shallow southerly slopes were structurally similar; each had a greater number of all trees, large trees, and large tree clumps than steep southerly slopes and ridges. Steep northerly slopes supported unique structures, with taller trees than ridges and shorter trees than canyons and shallow southerly slopes. Our results show that characterizations of forest structure based on LiDAR-detected trees are reasonably accurate when the focus is narrowed to the overstory. In addition, our finding of strong variation of forest structure and spatial pattern across topographic settings demonstrates the importance of developing reference models at the landscape scale, and highlights the need for replicated sampling among stands and landforms. Methods developed here should be useful to managers interested in using LiDAR to characterize distributions of medium and large overstory trees, particularly for the development of landscape-scale reference models.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)318-330
Number of pages13
JournalForest Ecology and Management
StatePublished - Feb 28 2019


  • Ecological reference model
  • Forest structure
  • Landscape restoration
  • LiDAR
  • Sierra de San Pedro Martir
  • Spatial pattern
  • Spatial scale


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