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Gwynne Ann Unruh is a former award winning reporter at the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

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Drones are mapping out Nob Hill’s tree locations in an effort to create hard data that will lead the way on how Albuquerque’s neighborhoods can maintain and create more tree canopies, ensuring the character of the neighborhoods in an environmentally friendly way 20 years from now.

“Policymakers need to understand the importance of restoring the tree canopy. This starts with hard data, and right now no one has any,” said Marc Powell, who co-founded the Dakota Tree Project and co-chairs the Nob Hill Neighborhood Tree Canopy Committee with his wife, Pamela Weese Powell.

“We’ll overlay the drone’s aerial footage onto software, and by going through the footage we’ll be able to identify healthy trees and properties that are missing trees to create data to help us be more effective at prioritizing plantings,” Powell told The Paper., adding they want to work with the city to make sure that areas where plantings occurred add value so the city will see a return on their investment.

The self-labeled “tree geek couple” plant trees and create community gardens through their Dakota Tree Project that they began as a way of honoring Marc Powell’s son, Dakota William Powell, who passed away in August 2017. Marc says Dakota loved to help plant trees and felt a special affinity for the protection and power that they provide. The project plants trees in historically disadvantaged areas in Albuquerque, like the International District. In their first year in operation, they planted over 100 trees and have received several grants from generous community members and organizations. The couple have also put their own money into the project.

A 2019 study from the Swiss Institute of Integrative Biology suggested that planting 1 trillion trees would dramatically reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and significantly help stop global climate change. “We have a problem and must continue to plant trees. It’s shocking how easy it is to restore forests and how little attention is being paid,” said Weese Powell. A study published in Nature estimates the planet has 3.04 trillion trees. The research reports 15.3 billion trees are chopped down every year. The report also estimates that 46 percent of the world’s trees have been cleared over the past 12,000 years. Life could not exist on Earth without trees and the oxygen they produce.

Around the globe countries are planting trees in an effort to stave off climate change. China’s “Green Great Wall” of billions of trees to be planted by 2050, enough to stretch the distance from San Francisco to Boston, is stabilizing thousands of acres of moving dunes and has dropped the frequency of sandstorms nationwide by one-fifth between 2009 and 2014. Ethiopia planted more than 353 million trees in 12 hours as part of “Green Legacy,” a reforestation campaign to plant 20 billion seedlings by 2024 to help build a green climate-resistant economy.

Last year Mayor Tim Keller announced his plan to plant 100,000 trees in 10 years. “Now folks can get involved creating a lush urban forest in every neighborhood across Albuquerque—making our city more sustainable and carbon-neutral in the process,” Keller stated.

 “Approximately 11,000 trees have been planted so far. However, 100,000 is not enough to cover all the dying trees,” Powell explained. “The city forestry department has had no sitting forester or assistant city forester for at least six months. We have no time to waste,” he said

The Dakota Tree Project is a member of the “Let’s Plant Albuquerque” alliance of organizations, joining forces to make their collaborative efforts more effective to grow Albuquerque’s urban forest. It includes Tree New Mexico, the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, Bernalillo County, New Mexico State University Cooperative Extension Service, The Nature Conservancy, the Dakota Tree Project, New Mexico State Forestry Division and the City of Albuquerque Parks and Recreation Department.

“The craziest thing to me about the lack of attention being paid to trees is that for any entity—whether it’s an individual, a corporation or a government—there is no higher return on investment than planting a tree,” Powell said. He would like to generate interest with legislators in collecting drone data neighborhood by neighborhood, create planting assessments and then create strategic tree-planning strategies that are five to 10 years long for Albuquerque.

Tree New Mexico has included the Nob Hill Neighborhood in their Spring of ‘22 Neighborwoods Program, and the Nob Hill Tree Canopy Committee is looking for people in Nob Hill who want more urban greenery. They will be going house to house, canvassing to find people who want to plant trees in their yard and who are willing to learn about caring for them. “We don’t fully understand the relationship between humans, trees and plants, but there is an undeniable connection when you’re in the middle of a forest,” Powell said.

Japanese “forest bathing” (shinrin yoku) is the conscious and contemplative practice of micro dosing in nature, immersed in the sights, sounds and smells of the forest. You don’t need a forest. Anywhere there are trees will do: In a nearby park or in your garden. Leave behind your phone, camera or any other distractions, and spend time walking through woods looking at a leaf, touching a tree or noticing the sensation of the earth beneath your feet. Sit and listen to the sounds around you, and notice how the behavior of the birds and other animals changes when they become used to your presence. 

After 15 minutes of forest bathing, blood pressure drops, stress levels are reduced and concentration and mental clarity improve. Hugging a tree increases levels of the hormone oxytocin, the hormone responsible for feeling calm, and the hormones serotonin and dopamine that make you feel happier. Trees contribute to their environment by providing oxygen, improving air quality, climate amelioration, conserving water, preserving soil and supporting wildlife.

“The one who plants trees, knowing that he will never sit in their shade, has at least started to understand the meaning of life” —Rabindranath Tagore.

To get involved with Tree New Mexico or donate to The Dakota Tree Project, please visit treenm.org and thedakotatreeproject.org.

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