Volunteers inventory Gulf Coast urban forest

By: Tara Skelton / Published: Sep 01,  2015

Groups of volunteers in Long Beach and Pass Christian, Miss., and Fairhope and Orange Beach, Ala., are identifying, measuring and counting area trees in an effort to obtain an inventory of the coastal urban forest. They are gathering baseline data for an ecosystem management plan the communities can use going forward.

Jason Gordon of the Mississippi State University Extension Service (MSU-ES) said that urban forests (tree groupings in more densely populated areas) improve quality of life in many ways:

  • Improving local air quality
  • Increasing property values
  • Providing shade
  • Providing wildlife habitat
  • Acting as a buffer against incoming tropical weather

Local leaders often overlook urban forests as an asset, unlike commercial forests. The urban forests’ ecological and economic value motivate community leaders to quantify their forests in order to make the right ecosystem management decisions.

“That’s the real reason for this project,” Gordon said. “You can’t manage something unless you know what you have in the first place.” 

Gordon, Glenn Hughes of MSU-ES and Arnold Brodbeck of the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service are heading up a project to do just that. Gordon says that satellite pictures provide a starting point by helping researchers identify places with heavier growth. But this top-down approach cannot provide the detailed information available through a bottom-up inventory. To get a closer look, the team has trained squadrons of citizen scientists, providing them with the information they need to fully inventory these areas from the ground up.

The volunteers attend workshops to learn between 30 and 40 tree species typical of the area. Then, they deploy in pairs or threesomes to survey one of 200 tenth-of-an-acre plots randomly generated by specialized geographical software. They inventory the plots using the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service’s i-Tree program and equipment lent to them by MSU and Auburn University. MSU-ES TreeMetrics, a smartphone app specially designed for the project, makes loading the data easy and immediate.

Retired Engineer Dave Dixon, of Pass Christian, said the project is the perfect way for him to use his skill set to give back to the community. He and his wife, Mary, have taken MSU-ES’s master naturalist and master gardener courses and are comfortable with the technology they use to load the data, thanks to the training.

“I’m hoping the tree survey will promote additional awareness on the Coast of what valuable assets these trees are,” Dave Dixon said.

The ongoing inventory is in conjunction with a two-part research component. First, Gordon and his team conducted key informant interviews with the “movers and shakers” in each community — elected officials, public works employees, local naturalists, etc. — to get a feeling for how trees are viewed there. Their responses informed a mail-out survey that went to 2,000 residents to understand how they, both as individuals and as a community, value trees.

Gordon said the ultimate product will be four comprehensive coastal urban forest management plans, specific to each community, that will be directed at municipal leaders and will involve residents as well.


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