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Tree Campus USA

Urban Forest Research Project Paves Way for Arbor Day Foundation Honor

As of Nov. 30, 2009, some 6,958 trees graced the Auburn University campus.

Nick Martin knows, because he counted them—and, while he was at it, he identified their species, took their measurements, assessed their physical condition and calculated their worth, too.

There was method to Martin’s seeming madness. The forestry graduate student was compiling valuable data that not only paved the way for Auburn to earn designation as a tree-conscious and tree-friendly campus but also laid the foundation for a research project that should enhance the beauty, health and function of urban forests in Alabama and throughout the Southeast.

The tree-counting venture goes back to fall 2008, when the national Arbor Day Foundation, with funding from Toyota Inc., established Tree Campus USA, a program to recognize colleges and universities that are committed to planting, protecting, managing and celebrating their trees and to engaging students and the community in ventures related to trees, urban forestry and environmental stewardship.

You might think Auburn, with its lovely, treestudded landscape, would have been a shoo-in for such an honor, but not so, as Auburn professors and fellow Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station scientists Gary Keever in horticulture and Art Chappelka in forestry quickly discovered.

“Auburn didn’t meet all the criteria for applying,” Keever says. “First, we had to establish a tree advisory committee and develop a comprehensive campus tree-care plan, complete with designated budget,” Keever says.

Though a complete tree inventory was not a Tree Campus USA requirement per se, Keever, Chappelka and Auburn landscape superintendent Charlie Crawford agreed such a catalog would be invaluable, but none had the time, manpower or money to commit to the undertaking.

The solution came in the form of a research grant the U.S. Forest Service awarded to Auburn to evaluate whether a computer program, called i-Tree Eco—developed by Forest Service scientists in the northeast to inventory, analyze the environmental effects of and put a dollar value to urban forests in that region—is valid in southeastern states as well. Requirement number one: a complete tree inventory.

With that funding as well as support from university administrators, Chappelka and Keever recruited Martin to run the study as his master’s degree research project, and Martin began the gargantuan task of collecting detailed information about every single tree on every managed area of the campus. Thanks to global positioning and geographic information systems technologies and a few assistants along the way, Martin wrapped up the job in six months.

“We got the species, height, crown width, diameter at breast height, relative health and location of every tree on campus,” says Martin.

He has loaded all the information into the i-Tree Eco database, which has calculated that Auburn University’s urban forest has a value of $10 million. He still has some facts and figures to gather, but when everything’s in, the model, using not only the structural field data but local hourly air pollution and meteorological data as well, will determine the impact that Auburn’s trees have on the environment in terms of air quality improvements, carbon storage and sequestration, energy use in buildings and pollen levels. In the final stage, Martin will evaluate the accuracy of the findings.

The Forest Service will use results from the Auburn study to adapt the i-Tree Eco model to urban forests in the Southeast, giving other communities and campuses across the region a free tool to assess and enhance their trees.

Meanwhile, the tree inventory allowed Keever and cohorts to develop a revised and expanded campus tree-care plan and submit a complete Tree Campus application to the Arbor Day Foundation. The work paid off earlier this year when Auburn was officially recognized as the first Tree Campus USA in Alabama.

“A recent survey found that 60 percent of prospective college students rated campus appearance as important or very important in choosing a college,” Chappelka says. “We’re going to make Auburn the loveliest village in the U.S.”

Grounds guru Crawford—a College of Ag alumnus who earned his bachelor’s in botany in 1985 and a master’s in plant pathology in ’88— says Landscape Services set a goal 15 years ago to plant at least 100 trees a year; since then they’ve averaged 200.

“In 2009, we removed 25 trees, but we planted 974,” Crawford says. “We plan to continue increasing our canopy each year.”

Auburn Tree Trivia

• The tallest tree on campus is a 136-foot loblolly pine located just south of Plainsman Park.

• The largest as measured by diameter at breast height is a Southern red oak that comes in at 61.3 inches. It is located at the RBD Library, on the southeast lawn.

• That same tree also wins the award for biggest crown width, at 108 feet.

• The Auburn campus boasts more than 130 species of trees, including both native and nonnative.

• The most common trees on campus are crapemyrtles, followed closely by willow oaks.

• The most unusual tree on campus likely is a tungoil tree at the College of Veterinary Medicine.

Jun 02, 2010
Jamie Creamer
Appraisal and Valuation, Inventory (tree), Environmental Services
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