On a mission to collect data on Baltimore’s trees

By Alia Malik
Baltimore, MD (July 28, 2007)- Before most city workers had reached their offices one recent morning, Amy Hess and Mary Ellen Chambers stood in front of a strip of trees on Calvert Street, ready to survey them- the 2007 way. With hand-held computers and an assortment of field guides, they gathered such information as the trees’ size, species and whether they have dead branches- a high-tech way to help move Baltimore toward its seemingly low-tech goal of doubling the number of trees in the city by 2036, improving both aesthetics and air quality.

“If you don’t know what you have, it’s very difficult to put the adequate resources into it,” said Myra Brosius, coordinator of the TreeBaltimore initiative for Baltimore’s Department of Recreation and Parks. “When you don’t know what you’re working with, it’s like operating in a vacuum.”
Hess, 28, and Chambers, 50, are volunteering with almost 80 others this month to help city officials assess the state of Baltimore trees. “It’s so easy and convenient,” Hess said of the computer survey process and software, known as i-Tree. Throughout this month, the volunteers are inspecting trees on 500 randomly selected city blocks — a task that includes trying to assess whether any pose a threat to wires or sidewalks.
At the survey’s end, the software will project how much the city’s public trees improve air quality, conserve energy, control storm water and increase property values, said Peter G. Conrad, a city planner in the Division of Research and Strategic Planning.
The software is useful because it can give that data in dollar amounts, evaluating how much property value public trees add and how much they save in energy and environmental fees, said City Arborist Rebecca Feldberg.
“It’s part of a national climate where there’s more and more attention paid to those functional values that trees give us,” she said. “Because they’re not articulated like that, trees aren’t given their place at the table as part of a livable city.”
The data collected using i-Tree should show policymakers and the public why the city’s trees are worthwhile, but Feldberg said she also predicts the survey will highlight the need for more trees and inspire residents to plant them on private property.
“Some people really need evidence,” Feldberg said. “To some people, they’re just a nuisance- you’ve got to rake the leaves, you know, the branches fall on your car- they don’t see the benefits.”
The i-Tree software is available at no cost from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, and the city Department of Recreation and Parks spent about $2,500 on the personal computers and other survey materials, Feldberg said. That money came from an $83,000 grant from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources to develop the TreeBaltimore plan.
Baltimore’s Urban Forest Management Plan, which is still being completed, has three major goals: better coordination among city departments that work with trees to keep them from being damaged; updating forestry policies to reflect the best current practices; and providing incentives for people to plant trees on private property. The plan proposes $6.7 million for increased parks department staff and additional trucks for city work on trees, Feldberg said.
Brosius developed the TreeBaltimore plan with input from several city and state departments, and nonprofit organizations. About 20 percent of Baltimore’s land lies under trees, Brosius said, compared with a 27.1 percent average for cities nationwide. Doubling the canopy to 40 percent is also part of a statewide plan to improve air quality, Brosius said. Baltimore does not meet federal air quality standards.
This year, for the first time, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is supporting tree planting as a method to improve air quality, Conrad said. “It’s a huge thing to have a positive rather than just a negative- you know, ‘You can’t build this; you can’t use these paints.'”
The Forest Service had been kicking around the idea for the i-Tree software long before the federal agency started developing it in earnest three years ago, said Mark Buscaino, who directed the service’s Urban and Community Forestry Program before leaving last year to join a Washington tree restoration nonprofit group. “Like most good ideas, eventually it just bubbled up to the top,” Buscaino said.
Working with decades of scientific research on the benefits of trees, the Forest Service eventually created the software with help from the Davey Institute, an Ohio-based nonprofit tree research institute. The software was released a year ago and has been used in cities including Sacramento, Calif., New York, Minneapolis and Boston, said Dave Bloniarz, a Forest Service project coordinator who developed some of the software.
“Here’s a chance to show the dollar value of our green infrastructure in a way that hasn’t been possible in the past,” Bloniarz said. “In today’s economic climate, this is the only way you can argue for continued investment in green space.” Bloniarz said he and his colleagues have been pleasantly surprised with the software’s burgeoning popularity. “It’s a neat project that everyone’s excited about,” he said.
Many of Baltimore’s volunteers feel the same way, said Kari Smith, assistant director for the Community Greening Stewardship Program at the nonprofit Parks & People Foundation. “I probably only had one person who didn’t enjoy it,” Smith said. “I’m starting to have a hard time getting everybody scheduled because there are so many people who want to survey.”
Chambers said she has always loved nature, although identifying trees “isn’t her strong suit.” “It’s been fun,” she said. “It’s nice to get outdoors; it’s nice to have a task; it’s fun to meet people you normally wouldn’t encounter.”
Hess found out about volunteering for TreeBaltimore after a Google search for summer volunteer opportunities in the city. She learned to identify trees during her childhood on a Pennsylvania farm and in high school and college classes, she said. “I just have always appreciated nature, and now I know how important trees are for the environment,” Hess said. “I just love everything about them- except when they fall down.”
Related Resources:
Baltimore Sun
Parks & People Foundation