Northampton tree survey volunteer gets a lesson in identification skills

Last modified: Thursday, September 18, 2014

NORTHAMPTON — Before volunteering in the Northampton tree surveying project last weekend, I would have guessed that a “London plane” was something that flew in and out of Heathrow Airport.

Now, thanks to a group of dedicated arborists, forestry experts, and tree enthusiasts, my tree identification skills have been sharpened a bit and I know there are London plane trees in Northampton. In fact, there are a lot of trees in the city that I see frequently but could not identify.

I was among more than 60 volunteers who gathered in the parking lot of Sheldon Field On Saturday morning. Our mission was to take part in a first-ever survey of the trees nearest to the streets of Northampton. According to organizer Lilly Lombard, the surveying project was the first of its kind in Northampton.

“This has been a long time coming,” organizer Lilly Lombard said. “This survey will provide us with an accurate, data-driven baseline or snapshot of our current canopy.” That is the area of a community shaded by trees.

According to figures produced by the Department of Public Works, the city has lost roughly 500 trees since 2006, and during that same period, only 242 trees have been planted.

“We really need to reverse this trend in canopy loss,” Lombard said.

The first step was creating an inventory of the trees in the city, where they are located and what shape they are in.

At 9 a.m. we received our instructions and broke into groups, each of which had a leader who was an experienced arborist or forester. Assigned to individual wards, we then fanned out across the city with clipboards, maps, diameter measuring tapes, and iPhones or iPads in hand.

While I am an environmental writer and educator, my focus is on mammals and large predators, and my tree identification skills were pretty rusty at best.

My team consisted of three other volunteers including leader Bob Aldrich of Warner Tree Service in Northampton, Rebecca Smith, a DPW employee from Northampton who has studied forestry at UMass, and Rebecca Neimark of Northampton, a freelance graphic designer with a passion for trees.

Together we collected data on 23 trees from within our randomly selected sections of Ward 2. We looked at species of trees, their diameter, bark and leaf health, location, and whether or not there were wires nearby or touching the tree.

As we walked down the residential streets to measure and examine trees, we frequently drew the attention of homeowners and passersby, wondering what we were up to.

While some had heard of the survey, others had not.

Justin Smith said he was perplexed by two locust trees that he said had been planted outside his home on Kensington Avenue between the sidewalk and the street.

“They put them right under power lines — who does that?” he asked.

Smith said that he had contacted the city to have them cut down before they interfered with the lines above.

“They talked about digging them up and transplanting them somewhere else,” he said. “I think that sounds like a lot of work to go through for two common trees. Maybe it is an emotional connection with trees.”

Rebecca Smith, no relation to Justin, said taking the trees out and replanting them would solve two problems at once. A more appropriate shrub or tree could be planted in place of the locust trees, while they could be transplanted elsewhere in Northampton.

Tree warden proposed

In a city that is losing its canopy faster than trees can be planted, maintaining the health of trees that are already in the ground becomes increasingly important, and that is one reason why Lombard is advocating for a full-time tree warden.

“Northampton has never had a tree warden,” she said. “They have people that do tree care and planting, but a warden is a professional would look at the big picture and be on the front end of developing and planting and producing a management plan.”

Lombard said she spent a year researching other communities with comprehensive care and management plans for their trees, including New York, Washington, D.C., and Toronto.

“There are a lot of great programs out there, but Amherst has the exact model that we want to have as we move forward,” Lombard said.

Amherst established a full-time tree warden’s position in 2011, and Northampton Mayor David J. Narkewicz has said he supports appointing a tree warden.

Laura Hilberg, another organizer of Saturday’s survey, has a master’s degree in conservation biology.

“For this project, I did more of the science part of the inventory making sure that it was a strong and solid scientific survey,” Hilberg said. “Today we are doing a random sampling of five 5 percent of the trees.”

The survey was supported by the U.S. Forest Service and the state Department of Conservation Resources.

Hilberg said that she worked closely with Mollie Freilicher, a community action forester with the state agency. “She really helped move us forward in getting this inventory going,” Hilberg said.

The volunteers went into the field with the ability to log into i-Tree from an iPhone or iPad and record all of their data into that state-of-the-art software from the U.S. Forest Service providing the tools to help analyze and assess data which can be used to demonstrate the value of trees and set priorities for more effective management of them.

“This software is used all over the world. It’s a wonderful tool with a proven track record,” Lombard said.

Lombard said having a diverse and healthy population of trees near the streets of a community is beneficial for several reasons.

“Street trees provide shade and coolness, they can mitigate floods and erosion, they can bring energy costs down and property values up and ecologically they can be a carbon intake to combat the greenhouse effect,” Lombard said. “Trees also a calming effect on people.”

Lombard added that trees are worth much more than their simple cash value.

“Having said that, trees are an amazing economic value. They make people want to come into town — it makes it inviting,” she said. “For example, when people are presented with two streets to shop on, one lined with trees and one without trees, they go to the one with trees.”

Lombard said she believes the surveying project was a great success.

“Our next step is to analyze the data, and present it to the city, and make a good case for protecting and caring for the canopy,” Lombard said.


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