ASU conducts special tree inventory
Appalachian State University's Physical Plant and its New River Light and Power utility company have teamed up with a biology graduate student to conduct a tree inventory that will benefit safety, academics, energy usage on campus and the utility's customer service.
This summer, Jason Harkey of Lincoln County is using special GPS equipment purchased by New River Light and Power to begin documenting every tree on Appalachian's 411-acre campus. He expects to complete the inventory in summer 2012.
During his survey, he notes the trees' overall health and checks for any potential hazards, such as dead branches.
He also measures the trees' height, diameter, canopy spread and canopy density and many other factors as part of a study of carbon sequestration.
Appalachian is one of just a few universities analyzing carbon sequestration, which is the amount of carbon a tree can store for a long period of time, and is important to the global amounts of carbon including rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Tree size, shape and location data can also be used to determine energy-saving benefits - including how much shade a tree offers in the summer and how much insulation from cold winds it can offer buildings during the winter.
"Our primary concern is the safety of the campus community," said Jim Bryan, superintendent of landscape services at ASU. "The data Jason gives us will tell us what we have and help us design a master tree planning program. It will also help identify hazardous trees that need to be removed and help us set up a time schedule to do this."
'The right tree in the right place'
Appalachian may have nearly 3,000 trees on its main campus. Their potential hazards include dead limbs, which can be selectively pruned, and dead and dying trees, which must be removed.
The sugar maple (Acer saccharum) is in particular trouble on Appalachian's campus. Although native to the North Carolina mountains, the trees have become stressed by urban factors such as ice-melting salt, soil compaction, proximity to steam lines and other utilities and construction.
"We need to be selective and put the right tree in the right place. There are other tree species that are more salt tolerant and can give us the same look," Bryan said.
Harkey is conducting his inventory by zones, beginning with high traffic areas such as Sanford Mall and ending behind the Broyhill Inn and Conference Center. The Landscape Services team has already begun maintenance work based on his data collected so far.
The project "is a great example of what we can do when everyone works together as a team - from New River Light and Power being able to purchase the instrument, to the biology professors' guidance, and Jason's hard work doing the tree inventory," Bryan said.
"From a biology standpoint, the campus is an urban forest. We're interested in its aesthetics, its ecology, and the benefits that forests give people," said biology professor Howie Neufeld.
These benefits include trees' prevention of erosion, reduction of energy use, beautification of landscape, reduction of pollution, providing a home for wildlife and ability to store, or sequester, carbon.
"We have access to a model developed by the U.S. Forest Service that will take the data Jason collects and calculate the amount of carbon that those trees sequester each year. It also has an economic component that can tell you the value of those trees in the urban landscape. When Auburn University did this, it came out to tens of millions of dollars of economic benefit to the campus," Neufeld said.
Much of Appalachian's economic benefit could be in energy savings, Harkey said.
He said research shows that a tree 20 feet tall within 60 feet of a two-story building can reduce energy costs both in the summer through shading and in the winter by buffering winds. By determining which tree species absorb the most carbon, his data could be used by Appalachian in planning which species to plant on campus.
The data could also help the university take steps toward recognition as a Tree Campus USA as designated by the Arbor Day Foundation for its tree diversity and management, said biology professor Mike Madritch, who is Harkey's major advisor. Madritch also said that Harkey's research could benefit academics by providing data for biostatistics and other courses.
Benefits to electrical service
The inventory also will give New River Light and Powerful information on potential threats to its electrical infrastructure in its efforts to provide the best customer service.
The utility company will use the tree inventory to assess the location of trees and how their limbs affect power lines overhead and how their roots affect power lines underground.
"It will be a great piece of information. Most utilities don't have this kind of data," said Ed Miller, general manager of New River Light and Power.
Once Harkey's study is complete, New River Light and Power will use the GPS equipment to inventory all its poles and electrical lines, including age of equipment and types of cable and hardware.
Harkey earned his bachelor's degree in ecology and environmental studies with a concentration in secondary education from Appalachian in 2008. He plans to complete his master's degree in biology in 2012 with a thesis based on the inventory.
"This summer experience has allowed me to apply my undergraduate degree in biology combined with my love for nature to make the campus more environmentally beneficial. Knowing which trees sequester the most carbon will help the campus maximize the carbon removed from the atmosphere," Harkey said.
"I love everything about biology and nature. I grew up hunting and fishing, so anything outdoors fascinates me. My summer job involved walking around outside collecting data on trees; it couldn't get any better," he said.
After graduation, Harkey wants to work for the National Park Service collecting data on plants and animals in order to help regulate hunting, trapping and fishing regulations.