Published on 09/01/05

Tree study includes technology bonus

By Stephanie Schupska
University of Georgia

The GPS signal bounced from earth to space to earth in a matter of seconds. And when enough satellites lined up the coordinates, David Berle had pinpointed another tree to add to his inventory.

The horticulture professor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences spent a Maymester term teaching his students how to hunt trees and add them to a geographic information systems database. And although it was a class project, the study also helped Clarke County, Ga., foresters.

“We mapped trees that already have significance,” Berle said. “The county had all the trees inventoried, but didn’t have a good map of them.”

The timing was close to perfect. During that early summer term, a new Athens-Clarke County tree ordinance was finalized that included a landmark tree inventory. It went into effect Sept. 1.

Many Georgia counties – including Fulton (Atlanta), Richmond (Augusta), Thomas (Thomasville), Berrien (Nashville) and Chatham (Savannah) – have similar ordinances.

The Athens-Clarke County ordinance calls for two full-time foresters, as do others in the state. “This opens up a lot of positions for students,” Berle said. “It’s a good link in preparing students for the job market.

“I teach it as a chance to learn technology,” he said. “And this technology has real world application."

The yellow hand-held global positioning systems that his class uses are accurate within one meter. The funds to purchase the devices – which cost $5,000 each – came from a UGA Learning Technologies Grant.

“It helps sometimes when you’re teaching to have something that looks like a Game Boy,” he said in reference to the GPS. “One of our long-term goals is to go online with this information,” much like a person can go online, map out road directions and, now, view the area’s geography. “It’s a lot of ‘wow, gee whiz’ practical stuff.”

It’s practical because mapping trees isn’t just about building inventory. Realtors, planning committees and other organizations throughout the state compare this information, such as an area’s tree canopy, to the property value of a home. Having that information readily available, and giving significant trees “a unique point on the map,” would speed up the process. Mapping landmark trees also helps contractors know which trees to protect when they are developing land for residential or commercial purposes, Berle said.

The class of eight students didn’t spend the three-week term mapping every single tree in the county. Instead, they hunted champion trees, historic trees and trees that have cultural significance.

A champion tree is the “largest tree of a particular species … it helps citizens in the county to keep looking for the next big tree,” Berle said. Trees with historical significance include those in a former slave cemetery that started in an open field and over the centuries turned into a dense forest. Culturally significant trees include the Moon Tree, a pine tree whose seed was taken on an Apollo mission.

Once a tree has been pinpointed on a geographic information systems map by several of the 23 American satellites orbiting the earth, Berle checks an Internet site 24 hours later for variances. The U.S. government put these safeguards in place to deter others from using GPS technology against Americans.

Access to such satellite technology has only been available to the public since the early 1990s. It was developed for defense purposes in the 1970s. And now it’s being used by horticulturists, foresters and students to keep an eye on trees. (Stephanie Schupska is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

Stephanie Schupska is the communications coordinator with the University of Georgia Honors College.