Students Brave Bogs and Bugs for Tree Inventory

By Henry Bailey
Memphis Commercial Appeal

DeSoto County, MS (June 19, 2010)- John Formby of Hernando used to play in a band, but now he’s in tune with the outdoors as he makes notes for a “tree inventory” conducted by the Mississippi State University Extension Service.

“I like the outdoors,” says Formby, 30, a senior who likes it better than most on this day, when the chiggers jam and the heat index strums the mercury north of 100. He’s in muggy, buggy, boggy woods north of U.S. 61 and Star Landing Road with three other forestry students and team leader Dr. Joy Anderson, MSU Extension director in DeSoto County. “This is real-world experience,” said Formby. “And real mucky, not far from a stream but shaded by a thick, tangled canopy.

There’s much riding on this state-federal count. So forget fingers, let’s get scientific. The team plants a flag, then steps away exactly 37.2 feet, and sets up flags in each of the four cardinal directions: “This makes a circular plot of a 10th of an acre,” said Anderson. Uniformity of plot size allows for coherent comparison and analysis, and identifying the site allows for a follow-up quality-assurance visit to check the data. A hand-held laser device helps determine tree height. Tree measurements eye “DBH” or “diameter at breast height,” 31/2 feet from the ground. Leaf health and canopy amount are noted. How much sun? (Trees getting sun above and from the four directions rate tops at 5). Trees are identified by genus and species, not common or local names.

Three of the students and Anderson wear blaze orange vests — all the better to see one another in thick vegetation, and not get shot. They quickly list a Nyssa aquatica (that’s a water tupelo), and there’s a Cephalanthus occidentalis (just a common buttonbush), but at less than 3 inches in diameter it’s too small to count. The team averages about five plots a day, but sometimes fewer when accessibility, inclement weather and critters intervene. Snakes are a challenge at times. “So far we’ve done about 60 plots,” said Anderson. “We’ll send the data to the U.S. Forest Service for statistical analysis. We should be finished by the end of July and hopefully by October they’ll send back a report on what the forest is doing for the citizens here,” such as air quality, storm water abatement, and information on tree age and diversity.

In effect, she said, the report “puts a dollar figure on all these services, so policy makers such as the county Board of Supervisors, city aldermen, municipal planners and others have correct information to make decisions.” The research project involves 12 categories of land among 290 plots randomly selected by DeSoto County Geographic Information Service director Matt Hanks and his staff. The categories are meant to run the gamut of land uses and include commercial, industrial, agricultural, institutional (such as schools), parks and even vacant lots.

While good science is its own reward, all the students’ trekking and thrashing is not without recompense: There is matching funding from the Mississippi Forestry Commission to allow for their hiring. And plenty of Deep Woods Off. “I’ve been really pleased with their work,” said Anderson. They’re ready for snakes, ticks, thickets, all things mother nature and human nature. Landowners’ permission is sought to reach each plot, and at times that’s a bit thorny with the wary. Public relations, personal contact are parts of the tool kit. “A lot of people don’t understand what we’re doing,” sighed Anderson. “They think the government is up to something.”

Traditionally an agricultural-based county, DeSoto has experienced rapid urbanization in recent years. Community and government groups, planners and natural resource managers are interested in learning how this urbanization is affecting the tree canopy cover and patterns of storm water runoff, according to Eric Kuehler of the Forest Service, a USDA branch.

Kuehler recently conducted a two-day training program for Mississippi State tree-inventory team members and others from as far away as Kentucky. Inventory data will be made available locally and incorporated in i-Tree, a peer-reviewed software suite from the Forest Service that provides urban forestry analysis and benefits assessment tools. The i-Tree system is designed to help communities boost urban forest management and advocacy efforts by quantifying the structure of community trees and the environmental benefits that trees provide.

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Students Brave Bogs and Bugs for tree inventory