For the Love of Trees

Fall is the perfect season to celebrate the beauty of trees. Color-changing, wind-buffering, rainwater-absorbing, trees tend to take center stage at autumnal time. Hope College sophomore Katelyn DeWitt, however, appreciates their value all year round. And she doesn’t mind being called a tree hugger because of it.

Actually, that is exactly what DeWitt did for ten weeks during the summer of 2018. She embraced her work with trees while inventorying and measuring the trunk diameters of nearly half of the tree population (so far 3500+) found on public property in the City of Holland. In doing so, she dug into determining the environmental and monetary values of various species in the city’s urban canopy.

What she found is confirmation, and then some, of Joyce Kilmer’s famous “Trees” poem. There is indeed nothing lovelier than a tree when it comes to the myriad of environmental benefits it provides in addition to its aesthetic value. Drought and flood mitigation, climate stability through carbon sequestration, pollution filtration, noise reduction and wildlife habitation are all the ecological workings of a tree. Natural benefits aside, the so-far-surveyed trees in Holland are projected to provide more than $16,166 in environmental value annually, according to DeWitt’s preliminary calculations that do not factor in electricity offset yet.

DeWitt took on the collaboratively- funded project (by the City of Holland, Hope College Biology Department and the Holland-Hope College Sustainability Institute) simply because “I’ve always liked trees,” says the biology major, “and I think it’s important to know more about them to help the world we live in.” Directed in her efforts by Dr. Kathy Winnett-Murray and Dr. Greg Murray, professors of biology, and Michelle Gibbs, director of the HHCSI, DeWitt spent her days identifying and measuring the diameters of 3,663 trees at a consistent height of 1.37 meters, also known as diameter at breast height (dbh), the universal standard to measure trees in field studies.

“From that (dbh) you can infer a number of things about how much the tree is absorbing carbon, or how much it is offsetting energy costs,” says Winnett-Murray. All of those tree-benefit computations are calculated by iTree, a software program developed by the U.S. Forest Service, and used from coast to coast for forestry studies. DeWitt used iTree to determine the $16,166 in public tree value mentioned earlier.

Near Hope’s campus, DeWitt’s favorite tree is the American elm found in front of Dimnent Memorial Chapel on the right of way of College Avenue. From past studies of that tree, DeWitt estimates that it is approximately 190 years old. From her present study of the tree using the iTree program, she also estimates that the big, old American elm removes 43.3 ounces of pollution a year, helps avoid water runoff at a rate of 92.2 square feet a year, and sequesters 81.6 pounds of carbon a year.

And that’s just one tree. In all, DeWitt found 94 species of trees on Holland’s public property, the most common being the Norway maple, a non-native tree. The second most common is the native sugar maple.

And all of those trees, especially in an urban setting, are becoming more and more important as deforestation occurs in rural areas due to a rise in development. “We’re losing natural tree canopy out there in the world because of urbanization,” explains Winnett-Murray, “so that means that urban tree canopies are becoming increasingly more important for the ecosystem services that we would have been relying on other trees to perform out in forests. In the best of all possible worlds, we’d have both. What this means to me is, in the future, people will depend even more on trees in the city for the ecosystem services like carbon sequestration.”

Both Winnett-Murray and DeWitt hope to see the Holland tree study continue to its completion next summer. The professor realizes she’s found the perfect student-researcher for the project and the student appreciates the opportunity. “One of Katelyn’s characteristics that really fit this project well is that she is pretty relentless,” says Winnett-Murray. “If she came across tree she did not know already — and wow, did she know a lot of them before she started — she would not give up and just say it was an unknown. She had to find out what it was and she would not give up.”

Through it all, the future ecologist not-surprisingly says her knowledge of tree species increased as did her deep appreciation of trees’ places in every environment. “I didn’t realize how much benefit a tree can provide in actual monetary value before I started this project,” DeWitt says. “Now I also understand that a stand-alone tree in an urban forest can provide even more benefits to people than a tree in a (regular) forest does.”

Natural benefits aside, the so-far-surveyed trees in Holland are projected to provide more than $16,166 in environmental value annually, according to DeWitt’s preliminary calculations that does not factor in electricity offset yet.

Others in Holland now have the chance to learn from DeWitt’s work as well. A new Android phone app developed by Dr. Michael Jipping, professor of computer science, and two of his Hope Summer Software Institute students, helps users identify Holland trees as it accesses GPS coordinates along with the Holland tree database entered into the application. “Treesap, Bringing People to Trees” can be downloaded from Google Play, and it’s free. It’s used by “walking up to a tree on Holland public property and clicking the big red button on the interface, and it will identify the tree for you, or tell you the tree is not in the data base yet,” says Jipping. “As the database grows, more trees will be added.” Jipping also hopes to have an iPhone version of the app completed within a couple years.

As for Winnett-Murray, her goal for the app is to encourage and enable Hollanders, and visitors too, to know their trees better. “But I also hope it gets people moving around the city from place to place, helping them get outside to learn about why trees are valuable. We love the app.”

“This is the first software app I ever produced that I got a hug for,” smiles Jipping. “They are very excited because it works the way they want it to.”

Hugs for trees and software developers, in the Holland Tree Project, you can just feel the arboreal love.

Science, Sustainability and a Bahamian Town Dump

Ah, spring break in the Bahamas. Sun. Sand. Palm trees. Snorkeling in coral reefs. Exploring limestone formations. Visiting the town dump.

What? Wait. The town dump?

Yes, Deep Creek Town Dump to be precise.

For more than 20 years, Dr. Brian Bodenbender has had a penchant for teaching and researching coastal geology in the Bahamas, and the weather there has nothing to do with it. It’s all about the rocks, the sea and sustainability for Bodenbender, who has led more than 70 students to the Caribbean nation over the years.

On his most recent trip during Hope’s spring break in March, the geology and environmental sciences professor took seven more geology and biology students to, and through, a Bahamian island for a course called “Geology, Biology, and Sustainability on Eleuthera Island, The Bahamas.”

At the Deep Creek Town Dump. (photo by Hope student Sandy Brookhouse)

Along with showing off the geological and biological features of Eleuthera Island, Bodenbender also teaches about how sustainability efforts are, or are not, successful in a remote place where dependence upon natural resources is obvious every minute of every day. Eleuthera’s main industry is tourism, but many of its residents also rely on fishing and some agriculture, mostly mixed crops on small plots, for their living.

On an island that is long (approximately 100 miles) and thin (six miles at its widest part), all 8,000 Eleutherans depend on having 90 percent of their food imported which results in 100 percent of the waste remaining on the island. Thus the stop at the town dump. What Eleutherans do with that waste is one of Bodenbender’s lessons. He feels it’s worth teaching in a place that is both a tropical paradise for tourists and also a permanent residence for thousands.

Emily O’Connor on Eleuthera’s limestone coast (photo by Kristen Godwin)

“One of the aspects of being on an island is that it is expensive to ship stuff onto it and it doesn’t pay at all to ship stuff off,” explains Bodenbender. “So the ways that they handle household waste is to take it to the dump, which is maybe an acre or so with signs saying, ‘Please dump at the back.’ So whatever trash is taken there is thrown in a pile and then about once a week, they come by and light a match to it.”

Open-air incineration in paradise is an issue in and of itself, but the students also learn that the composition of Eleuthera’s bedrock creates another problem when it comes to burning trash. Since the island is mostly composed of limestone with little topsoil, the porous nature of the ground means that rainwater percolates through the dump’s ashen toxins right down into the groundwater and that toxic tea eventually reaches the ocean.

Dr. Brian Bodenbender, center in tan hat, gives coastal geology lessons on Eleuthera Island. (photo by Sandy Brookhouse)

“So it’s quite obvious that this is not a great way to handle waste,” says Bodenbender, “and it’s not sustainable in the least. It’s an eye-opener for students and I hope it gives them a new regard for regulations. In this case there is a regulation, but that regulation is ‘Move this stuff to the back of the dump.’ That’s not a regulation that is going to protect the potential drinking water or protect the reefs that are offshore that may have toxins washing out into them. So it’s just a really, really stark contrast between life on an island nation and life in the U.S.”

Junior geology major Jacob Stid agrees and actually sees a connection between what he now knows of waste disposal on Eleuthera and waste disposal in the U.S. It’s not a favorable connection, though, for his home country.

“Here in the U.S, we think that because of our size and power that we are exempt from these problems. We are not as different as we perceive.”

“Over the course of this trip I came to the realization that, in a way, we live on our own island here in the United States,” says Stid, whose hometown is Mason, Michigan. “Let me break that down. On Eleuthera, resources are limited and care must be taken in every use of every resource including the disposal. Without such care, not only would resources deplete but also what remained would lie in ruin and contamination. Here in the U.S, we think that because of our size and power that we are exempt from these problems. We are not as different as we perceive. Although the effects occur more slowly, our neglect for how we use and dispose of our resources may even put us below Eleuthera from a sustainability standpoint.”

Bodenbender says Eleuthera is not without good sustainability efforts. And, he does show his students their successes, such as the making of biodiesel fuel from used cooking oil retrieved from cruise ships, as well as producing excess wind and solar energy that goes right back to the Bahamian government’s power grid. Those sustainability priorities are potential money-savers for the tiny island; waste disposal is anything but.

GES/BIOL 341 — Geology, Biology, and Sustainability — class in the Bahamas (photo by Hope student Kristen Godwin)

Prior to departing for their intensive spring break lessons on Eleuthera, students meet once a week with Bodenbender for this semester-long course to learn how to identify certain invertebrates and geological features they’d encounter on the island while there for eight days. Besides their sustainability excursions, the class also took day hikes in the island’s tropical forests and along its rocky coast, and went snorkeling to investigate coral reef degradation and rebirth.

“They were going to be seeing so much that is new, I wanted to teach them about these things (at Hope) before we entered the environment,” he says. “And it’s an environment that can be pretty harsh — with sharp rocks, even sharp plants and bugs if you’re not on a groomed beach. And we are not laying on the beach.”

On the road to the Island School. (photo by Jenni Fuller)

Bodenbender headquartered his class at the Island School in Deep Creek — a private secondary school on the island that also is home to graduate-level research — for both living and teaching accommodations. After each exhausting day out learning on the island, class members would debrief at the school and write in journals. Now back at Hope, each student is turning their journal into a field guide of Eleuthera as well as writing a reflective paper on sustainability.

“It deepened my knowledge of the complex factors involved in ecosystems anywhere and how one can be better understood by looking at the other.”

The show-off-blue water and sky of Eleuthera. (photo by Kristen Godwin)

For senior biology major Kristin Godwin, this course was an opportunity of a lifetime, and it deepened her understanding of the interdisciplinary scientific nature of the Bahamas. While she believes she’ll forever remember the indescribable, show-off-blue water and sky on Eleuthera, and that small fish that swam under her for protection as she snorkeled reef to reef, Godwin was also impressed by the complexities and challenges of sustainability in the Bahamas and at home.

“For me, the most important thing I learned was the relationship between biology and geology and their necessary balance within sustainability efforts,” says Godwin. “I was the only biology major on the trip, so I learned a lot about geology. And as I learned, I began to see the relationship between the two. It deepened my knowledge of the complex factors involved in ecosystems anywhere and how one can be better understood by looking at the other.”