By Kyle Peveto
Baton Rouge, LA (August 2, 2012) — Baton Rouge may be the most tree-covered city in the U.S., according to new data collected by the Southern University Research and Extension Center. The six-month study of more than 1 million trees within Baton Rouge’s city limits shows that those trees compose a canopy covering 44% of the city, surpassing other large cities. These trees provide a value of $6.2 billion, including removing 860 tons of pollution annually, and saving $8 million each year as a result of tree shade. The city’s success is a result of ongoing partnerships among government, academic, and non-profit leaders.
If Kamran Abdollahi has his way, Baton Rouge will become known as “Green City.” A professor of urban forestry at Southern University, Abdollahi is reminded by out-of-town colleagues how leafy the city remains, even after hurricanes and development have taken their toll. That’s one of the first things they notice is how green it is,” Abdollahi said.
Abdollahi and his students recently completed a scientific study of the more than 1 million trees within Baton Rouge’s city limits. Those trees compose a canopy that covers 44 percent of the city — a larger percentage than the professor can find in any other North American city. Atlanta’s 36 percent coverage is second, according to data compiled by Abdollahi’s urban forestry department.
“I think people have taken it for granted because it’s all around us,” said Peggy Davis, the executive director of the LSU Hilltop Arboretum, after learning of the study’s statistics. “People don’t realize how special this is, this part of the country.”
The six-month study used the urban forestry community’s standard method developed by the urban forestry community and software created by the U.S. Forest Service. Last summer, Abdollahi and his graduate students pinpointed 400 locations indicative of the city’s forest, each measuring one-tenth of an acre, then counted and measured each tree at the location.
While some of the plots were heavily forested, others were developed and nearly treeless. The counting method resembles a scientific survey, where a percentage of the population can accurately account for the views of the entire country.
These plots will become permanent research locations where Abdollahi can return occasionally to search for changes — whether trees have grown or been cut down.
In his report, Abdollahi has attached a dollar value on Baton Rouge’s trees — $6.2 billion, a number reached using six separate measurements. For example, the urban forest removes 860 tons of pollution per year, he found, which Abdollahi said saves the city and its industry $6.2 million a year in costs associated with capturing contaminants. Also, he calculated that residents and businesses save $8 million a year because of shade created by trees — a figure developed by calculating the shade that covers homes and buildings on the survey sites.
These numbers prove that trees offer more than aesthetic value, Abdollahi said. “It’s more than just loving trees,” he said.
Baton Rouge’s fertile location along the Mississippi River allows for a greener landscape, but Abdollahi credits the city’s interested residents with maintaining and planting trees. And he said he hopes through more education the city can keep what it has. “Of course we are blessed with the ecology of the land,” he said, “but we have to take care of it.”
Abdollahi has begun working closely with nonprofit Baton Rouge Green, a tree-planting and education organization that has planted 4,800 trees in a quarter-century. While that number is a small piece of the city’s foliage, the organization’s projects raise awareness of the positive attributes of trees, he said.
“Baton Rouge Green is doing the right thing by showing that trees are important,” Abdollahi said. The organization’s most active work includes its Living Roadways program, which advocates planting native trees along area highways.
“If this organization had not planted the trees along the roadways, it would just be concrete,” said Diane Losavio, executive director of Baton Rouge Green.
Aside from roadside planting, the organization also plants trees in “environmentally underserved” neighborhoods, old and new developments with little vegetation, through its Neighborwoods program.
Its Plant Smart project encourages residents to plant the right trees in the right spot, Losavio said. Native trees grow best and take the least maintenance — live oak, sweet gum, cypress, crape myrtles and Southern magnolias are among the most popular.
However, a sweet gum or sycamore root can wreck a sidewalk, and loblolly pines may not be the best choice directly next to your house because they may snap near the crown in hurricane-force winds. Live oaks live longer than red or water oaks, Abdollahi said.
“We’re a very small staff,” Losavio said. “We couldn’t possibly plant enough trees. What we can do is encourage people to plant trees and take care of trees.”
Baton Rouge residents appear to care for trees fairly well. A study 21 years ago found that the tree canopy covered 55 percent of the city, Abdollahi said. After hurricanes and rapid growth, Baton Rouge lost a little more than 10 percent of coverage since then.
“The fact that we haven’t lost 20 percent of our canopy in 20 years is good news,” Abdollahi said. “Other cities have lost more than that.”
While the study’s results excited Abdollahi and Losavio, they see a need for continued arboreal education of Baton Rouge residents.
“We have to appreciate what we have and build on it,” Abdollahi said. “We can’t say Baton Rouge Green is going to do it. We don’t have to do it. Every citizen should get involved, get organized.”