Learning to count trees and their benefits

Street trees

New York City is about to embark on its third census of street trees. Photo by NYC Parks.

By Len Maniace

I’d like to learn to play the piano and to speak another language fluently, but instead I found myself learning how to count trees this Friday past. One does what one can.

About 20 of us would-be tree counters gathered at the Arsenal building off Fifth Avenue in the lower 60s, headquarters for the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation.

Soon we were out in a chilly wind that felt more like November learning to identify tree species, taking various measurements of said trees and assessing their health.

All this focus on trees is for Tree Count 2015, the city’s third decennial census of street trees, an endeavor that could strike some as odd. Why not count telephone poles or birds – oh wait, the Audubon Society does count birds every Christmas.

Measuring the urban forest

As we wrote several weeks ago the city will depend heavily on volunteers – from 4,000 to 10,000 – for the count, which is set to begin in mid-May and run through the end of September. Friday morning was one of a dozen classes for volunteers to learn about the count so they can then help train a legion of citizen tree counters.

Sharing their expertise were Charles Cochran, the Street Tree Census Assistant Coordinator, and Philip Silva, co-founder and co-director of TreeKIT, a small nonprofit operation that built the digital tools allowing the census to switch from paper for recording tree details.

Along with a digital tablet for recording tree data, the two were equipped with a measuring wheel that looks like it might be unicycle for a small child. As you role the wheel on the ground it measures distance, sort of like an car odometer, only here we are measuring distances from tree to tree with the accuracy of one-tenth of a foot.

Checking trees: Dead or alive

Along with training, the volunteers will get a tree count guide that tells them how long to spend gathering 16 pieces of tree data: Step Six: Tree Structure: Alive, dead or a stump – five to 10 seconds. Step Eight: Identifying a Street Tree – approximately 60 seconds. To identify tree species there’s a dandy color poster that organizes trees according to characteristics as well as those most commonly found on city streets.

So why is the city counting street trees. The city learned from its two previous counts: it had a big problem with potentially lethal dead trees lining city streets from the 1995-6 census; that street trees produce roughly a $122 million benefit in energy savings, clean water, clean air and the removal of global-warming carbon-dioxide from the air after the 2005 census.)

That information helped shape city policy. After the first census, NYC got serious about removing dying trees. The second tree census led to NYC’s Million Trees program to expand those environmental benefits.

The environmental and civic group I head, the Jackson Heights Beautification Group, pledged to count trees on some 120 blocks – a figure that was double our original plan after one persuasive Park employee convinced us we’d barely break a sweat. We’re gathering volunteers now for the Jackson Height effort now.

We’ll keep you posted on the progress of Tree Count 2015. If you are interested in participating elsewhere in NYC click hear.

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About lenmaniace

Award-winning writer and editor who has worked as a journalist and a corporate communications professional specializing in environmental sustainability and public health policy. Experience includes successful media outreach for a Manhattan publicity firm. Board member and president of a community-based nonprofit. Founder and leader of a series of successful park, art and environmental programs in Jackson Heights, Queens, one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the nation’s most diverse city. * Executive Editor at Elsevier, a leading scientific and medical publisher. * Publicist, Media Advisor, Social Media Manager (part-time) at Monteiro & Co., a book-marketing company that specializes in business management, economics and politics. * Reporter (part-time) at the New York Post, specializing in breaking news in the world’s most competitive media market. * Senior Writer and Editor at The Journal News/LoHud.com, Gannett’s daily news outlet in Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties. Specialized in health policy and environmental sustainability issues * President the Jackson Heights Beautification Group, a volunteer nonprofit civic organization in Queens, N.Y. Leader of its innovative environmental sustainability programs, including the Green Agenda for Jackson Heights.
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