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The sun shines through the trees at the governor's mansion in Buckhead

Student arborists help gauge governor’s trees

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When a tree limb fell on the grounds of the governor’s mansion, staff there turned it into a teachable moment.

The event launched a larger assessment of all 300 trees across the property and incorporated students at the University of Georgia to assist and learn from the process. As a result, two graduating students in UGA’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources surveyed the 18-acre property and delivered a risk-assessment report as part of their capstone senior project.

As a result, they gained valuable, real-world experience to complement their new community forestry and arboriculture degrees.

“I’ve assessed individual trees before, but never so many on one property,” said senior William Knapp, who worked with fellow student Shelley Palmer on the project. “It gave us good insights on what working as an arborist would be like.”

The property, located in the metro Atlanta neighborhood of Buckhead, includes much more than the governor’s mansion. There are also walking trails, an orchard, a vegetable garden, beehives and a chicken coop, all initiated by First Lady Marty Kemp. Because tree risk is associated with falling branches, these on-the-ground activities can further influence this assessment along with the overall health and maintenance of the tree. All trees carry the potential for risk, but arborists manage that risk so that people can live with trees and appreciate the benefits they provide.

Throughout the fall semester, the students visited the property a half dozen times to look at pruning techniques, the potential for tree removal, ways to restrict effects of dropped limbs and places that might need follow-up monitoring. All told, 67% of the trees were determined to be low risk, with another 31% requiring some follow-up in the future and 2% deemed high risk. The moderate or high-risk trees in areas of low use—for example, not near the garden or the walking trail—may need to be monitored or removed. High risk trees in areas of high use were recommended for removal.

But the assessment wasn’t all negative. Trees in urban areas come with a lot of positive benefits, and the students included this in their survey. “When working with an urban forest, it’s important to assess the benefits trees provide as well as the risks,” added Knapp.

Atlanta is known as the “City in a Forest,” and the governor’s mansion property is indicative of that. But beyond providing shade and aesthetic value, urban trees also provide carbon sequestration, help reduce pollution, provide wildlife habitat, reduce pollutants that end up in stormwater runoff and increase property values. The students’ assessment included these benefits, even detailing the two watersheds that are improved by the property’s tree canopy.

But the property held additional potential, the students said, through educational opportunities for schoolchildren. The team sketched out several examples of ways trees and other features could be worked into lessons.

“There is a desire for outdoor learning opportunities and a need for suitable locations,” said Knapp. “Students need hands-on experience, which may be hard for the schools to provide.”

Palmer added that forestry activities such as measurement exercises and tree identification, can be combined with wildlife curriculum to benefit agricultural education classes. Teachers could also tap into urban forestry content, whether it’s showing the ecosystem services trees provide or exposing middle schoolers to career opportunities in the growing field.

“Also, this would be a great opportunity to bring a professional arborist to the mansion and show students the professional opportunities available to them,” she said. “And, some of the activities we recommend are taking students to the chicken coop, beehive and orchard and vegetable garden. They can make interpretive signs so guests can understand how the mansion uses the eggs it produces.”

Knapp and Palmer said they enjoyed the opportunity to learn about the grounds of the governor’s mansion and were excited about its trees and other agricultural activities. It was a fitting project as each student plans their next career move into community forestry.

“Trees provide a lot of ecosystem services, and it’s important to consider that,” added Knapp. “This project gave us more experience in the various aspects of urban forestry, not just tree risk assessment that we experienced in labs.”

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