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Blue Heron Nature Preserve, Georgia Tech team up to analyze 30-acre tree canopy

In the fall, Blue Heron's 30 acres has about 80 percent tree coverage. (Photo courtesy of Blue Heron Nature Preserve.)

By Hannah E. Jones

With over 80 percent of the U.S. population living in urban areas, Atlantans are lucky to reside in an urban center deemed the city in the forest. The folks at Blue Heron Nature Preserve are intent on ensuring Atlanta lives up to its legacy as a green city. 

Blue Heron is a 30-acre natural oasis nestled near Chastain Park, with a mission to foster a personal experience with nature for each visitor through conservation, education and art. This year, the Blue Heron team has joined forces with Georgia Institute for Technology to track the preserve’s tree canopy and its changes through the seasons via drone. 

Blue Heron in the fall versus summer. (Courtesy of Blue Heron Nature Preserve, Georgia Institute of Technology.)

Georgia Tech’s Javier Irizarry is the expert behind the drone, visiting Blue Heron four times within one year to capture photos and data points — including temperature, height and GPS coordinates — to track the nature preserve in every season. The project started this summer and will run until next spring, with plans to do a follow-up in the next few years.

Javier Irizarry demonstrates the data collection process. (Photo by Hannah E. Jones.)

To collect this data, Irizarry split the 30 acres into five segments. From there, he spends about 15 minutes per section flying the drone 250 feet above the ground, scanning the tree canopy. The footage can be seen in real-time through a regular and infrared camera and is uploaded into DroneDeploy, a program that provides 3D mapping and analysis.

Once the project is complete, the Blue Heron team will use this research to better manage and protect their pocket of nature. For example, the drone footage allows the team to identify changes in the landscape or potential issues impacting the health of the forest.

“We want to benchmark what our tree canopy looks like,” said Denise Cardin, Blue Heron conservation and operations director. “We want to watch how our landscape changes over time. Like our pond that’s drying up and going from a pond into a marsh. [It’s important to know] how our landscape is changing and how to better nurture and keep it sustained.”

As a byproduct, the team is also able to use the data to track nearby neighborhood changes. For example, upon reviewing the recent data with SaportaReport, they saw that a neighboring development had clear-cut a section of land which seemingly crossed onto Blue Heron’s property.

(L to R) Javier Iziarry, Denise Cardin and Melody Harclerode. (Photo by Hannah E. Jones.)

Once the project is finalized next summer, the nonprofit plans to share the information with local governments, universities and environmental groups to educate them on the project and advocate for further protections of the region’s tree coverage. In an area as hot and prone to flash flooding as Atlanta is, trees are an essential component to mitigating these effects.

“Those who are stewards of these parks and greenspaces, using a layered approach, can be even stronger stewards because we now have additional tools in our arsenal,” Executive Director Melody Harclerode said.

She continued: “Our reach is multigenerational and this information isn’t only for adults, but we can also inspire the kids through our camps and after-school programs to help them understand the importance of trees in their community. We like to find ways to not be siloed in our [efforts].”

This data set will be used to benchmark Blue Heron in the summer. (Courtesy of Blue Heron Nature Preserve, Georgia Institute of Technology.)

For Blue Heron, this initiative is about taking matters into their own hands, rather than looking to local municipalities to lead the charge in strengthening our green assets. The team hopes others will follow suit. 

“A healthy tree canopy does more than just take carbon dioxide out of the air, it’s also a very healthy resource for watershed management. All the water runoff comes into the preserve, filters through the soil and goes into the aquifer as cleaner water,” Cardin said. “I think Atlanta is slowly appreciating a canopy of health and we want to be part of that.”

Cardin added: “Maintaining the data helps us nurture nature as it needs to be within the Atlanta area, and help with any decisions that may come in the future.”

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Hannah E. Jones

Hannah Jones is an Atlanta native and Georgia State University graduate, with a major in journalism and minor in public policy. She began studying journalism in high school and has since served as a reporter and editor for two newspapers. Hannah managed the Arts and Living section of The Signal, Georgia State’s independent award-winning newspaper. She has a passion for environmental issues, urban life and telling a good story. Hannah can be reached at hannah@saportareport.com.

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