It’s time for Morristown trees to stand up and be counted

By Nayna Shah

Morristown, NJ (July 19, 2010)- To most people, the skinny giants along the streets of Morristown are just trees.  To the Morristown Environmental Commission and Sustainable Morristown, they are the keys to environmental awareness and a more organized city.


Sponsored by a grant from Sustainable Jersey, the Morristown Urban Forestry Initiative focuses on identifying all the street trees of Morristown and adding them to a database.   The town hopes to create an interactive map displaying the locations of each of the species to assist the Environmental Commission and Department of Public Works during planting season.  When trees are classified, their condition is also recorded.  Any tree filed as “critical” or “dangerous” condition can be removed or repaired before it causes any harm.  Finally, after all trees have been identified, residents can be educated on the trees in their neighborhoods and the proper methods to preserve them.

The effort is led by Steve Liapis, a graduate student at Yale University studying plant and microbiology and applied genetics.  Steve is an intern working for the town, and he created the key used to identify the hundreds of trees in Morristown. “The goal is to create a database with all the identified trees and make it publicly accessible to Morristown residents.  At the moment, this information is only accessible through the town hall and the Department of Public Works,” says Steve.

A “dichotomous key” is used to classify each tree.  A dichotomous key is a guide that requires you to describe the appearance of the tree (the bark, the leaves, etc.). For example, the guide may say: 1. Leaves are needle-shaped; move to step two. Or: Leaves are not needle-shaped; move to step three. After enough steps, the guide will provide you with a species name.  To input the data, the town uses a software program called I-Tree.

To record the information, Steve uses a GPS device.  Similar to the technology in today’s cars, the GPS documents locations by longitude and latitude, but also acts as a hand-held computer that stores the information you provide about the tree. Last week, Steve led training sessions for Morristown residents, who learned how to catalog trees and use the GPS.  By himself in the last two weeks, Steve already has classified 650 trees.  However, the initiative aims to get the town involved as well.

“Our hope is to establish a citizen corps of volunteers to catalog trees and add to the database.  This way the information can be updated at least once a year, and there will be better management of Morristown’s trees.” When identifying a tree, the first thing to input on the touch screen of the GPS is your location, because although it recognizes longitude and latitude, it does not contain street names.

After using the dichotomous key (created by Steve) to classify the species of the tree, the GPS asks a few follow-up questions such as the quality of the bark and the circumference of the trunk at chest height (four and a half feet off the ground). The next step is to observe any management hazards: Branches intercepting power lines or roots breaking through sidewalks.  The final part of the procedure is to provide maintenance suggestions:  No check-ups, routine check-ups, or critical maintenance.

The GPS also lists specific processes to choose from such as staking a tree, trimming the branches, disposing of dead limbs, using pesticides, or cutting down the tree altogether (only to be chosen if the tree is dead, about to fall, or is dangerously intertwined in power lines).

After filling out the report on the tree, the information is added to the database and the “classifier” can continue with his or her duties.  If a tree gets cut down, it will be deleted from the list.  A part of the grant from Sustainable Jersey will also be used for planting new trees, so while Morristown classifies, it also contributes.

In the future, Morristown will release a group of “super classifying volunteers” who will tackle the forces of USTs (Unidentified Street Trees) with GPS’s and dichotomous keys in hand.  Whether you appreciate trees for the shade and oxygen they provide, or simply see them as a backache from raking, Morristown is already on its way to uniting its residents and protecting the environment together.

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It’s time for Morristown trees to stand up and be counted