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  • Writer's pictureBrady Hummel

Urban Champions: Sharing the Value and Importance of Working Forests in Metro Atlanta

Updated: Nov 24, 2021

[This story was originally published in the Fall 2019 issue of Georgia Forestry Magazine.]

Atlanta is a landscape of tall buildings, flashing taillights, pedestrians and scooters on the sidewalks. In many places, there are trees planted along those sidewalks, but none like the longleaf pine stands that are a constant visible feature of rural Georgia. While rural counties outnumber urban counties in Georgia,¹ the majority of the state's population lives in the 29-county metro Atlanta area.² And that population is projected to boom, as metro Atlanta has the fourth-fastest growing population in the country.³ Many of those people don't often get outside of the metro area to be able to see and appreciate our state's working forests. Those unseen forests impact their survival, comfort and progress every day. Featured here are three champions of working forests providing eye-opening experiences for people in metro Atlanta - showing how important and powerful our forests are in our everyday lives, no matter the county in which we live.

Nature's Enlightened Classroom

When Tom Howick talks about the 127 acres of beautiful forest, wetland and river habitat at the Chattahoochee Nature Center (CNC), you get the sense that he's most likely explored every one of them. He speaks about the nature center like a sanctuary, familiar yet always offering new experiences. "I'm all about sitting spots in the forest where you can go out and get quiet and contemplate," he said. "I think it's like a symphony sometimes when it's blowing through the certain times of seasons. I love being in nature like that."

Tom Howick in front of the Chattahoochee Nature Center's new high-ropes course. CNC welcomes more than 130,000 children and adults every year to its 127-acre campus in Roswell. (Photo by Jon Copsey, CNC)

Howick's been involved with CNC since 1979, when he started bringing his high school students to study the relationship between watersheds, forests and rivers. "Our mission statement is to connect people to nature - simple and to the point." As senior director of education and lead naturalist, his job is to create programming that allows people of all ages in metro Atlanta to engage with nature in ways they can't in their backyards. "It gives them an opportunity to have an experiential education experience and an experience that they couldn't have in a classroom or on TV. There's no substitute for getting people in the forest, no substitute," he said. Before we can hope to show people who don't see forests every day that working forests impact their lives constantly, there needs to be a fundamental appreciation and understanding of the natural world. "It's kind of like Johnny Appleseed," he said," you have to plant the seed for everybody to grow. And if you don't give people experiences at any age, they're never going to be able to enjoy and appreciate it. You can't become a steward of the land without having some awareness and knowledge first." CNC's education programs target all ages from pre-K to adults around the metro area, both in schools and on-site. "We use this place kind of like a natural laboratory," Howick said in front of a new high ropes course that snakes through the forest canopy. "We try to teach people that trees are important in terms of ecosystems around here not just for animals and other species, but for us, too. There are lots of different things that we benefit from, having trees around here. It's just a great place for people to come out, relax and learn about what's here in the Piedmont region." Howick's favorite moments at CNC are seeing young kids getting their first powerful moment in nature, building that awareness and knowledge base early. "I think when kids come here, their 'a-ha' moment could be just touching a tree or picking up a leaf or seeing a leaf drift down." "I have kids come up and hug me and say, 'This is the best day of my life,'" he continued. "They hold my hand because sometimes they're a little scared about getting in the forest. But when we walk on these trails and stop and close our eyes for a minute to listen to the sounds in the trees, it's magic." When Howick said that, you could see he's experienced that magic many times throughout his time in the forest. Sitting on a wooden bench in a quiet area just off the trail, he looked up and said, "I think we just give them time to slow down and to be a part of this, because they're really in nature's enlightened classroom." Every day, he shares his love for the forest and invites everyone he interacts with to learn from the nature around them, planting the seeds for people to connect to and be stewards of the land.

Teaching the Intangibles

"I never really got to be outside that much, and that's a lot of the reason why I like the program so much," said Madison Ford, a high schooler from Decatur, while taking a break from her work in the orchard. It was a hot morning in late July, and the Trees Atlanta Youth Tree Team was at the Urban Food Forest at Browns Mill on the last day of their summer program. Over seven weeks, a group of high schoolers went outside in a unique program that teahes them about "green collar jobs" involved in the environment, while also fostering in them the skills they'll need to be successful in their careers. Trees Atlanta had 12 students during the first year of the Youth Tree Team in 2016; this year, there were 32 students representing 18 different high schoolers in metro Atlanta. For this year's capstone project, they split up into smaller groups to divide and conquer the work they had to finish at Browns Mill: stream remediation, trail-building, planting an orchard and building a rain garden. The 7.1-acre site, located 15 minutes from downtown Atlanta on the south side of the city, is the largest food forest in the United States and will provide healthy food options and outdoor recreation opportunities for local residents.

Travys Harper, left, and Dana Render, right, with Youth Tree Team members working behind them at the Urban Food Forest at Browns Mill on the south side of Atlanta. (Photo by Brady Hummel)

Walking around the site and watching the team members work, Travys Harper beamed with pride. Complimenting the students' work and joking with them, he says that he "brings a youthfulness to match the kids' energy," and it's clear it resonates with them. In his second year as Youth Tree Team supervisor, he gets energized talking about the value he sees the program having in the students' lives. "They like what we have to offer and working outdoors. You have to have a program that facilitates fun along with getting paid and learning about reforestation and the environment. And the things that they learn week-by-week are bringing out a different side of them that they never knew they had, a different instinct that they may want to pursue down the road." Being a part of the Youth Tree Team is not like going to summer camp. The team members are expected to act professionally and are evaluated each of the seven weeks on showing initiative, green consciousness, accountability, responsibility and respect. "Those are the intangibles that they already have, but we help foster them because they'll need them in life," Harper said. "I was drawn to apply to the Youth Tree Team because it's a job that trains us for another job," said Ami Bluestone, a first-year member of the team. Through "enrichment days" with Perkins+Will, the Atlanta Botanical Gardens and Dorsey Tree Farms, the team members get introduced to a wide range of career paths leveraging different skillsets and backgrounds that all help to support the health of our environment. "After the enrichment days, a bunch of [the kids] told me, 'I never thought about this; I'm thinking about landscape architecture or conservation now!'" Harper said, beaming. "I'm looking into environmental engineering, and I didn't know what field I wanted to get into until I started working with the Youth Tree Team," Ford reiterated. "Being able to see what they do at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens and everything that goes into their work makes me feel a lot more secure about what I want to go into." "They're on the verge of high school and college and figuring out what they really want to do," said Dana Render, Trees Atlanta's director of education. "So, if we introduce them to our partners and some green collar jobs, we're getting them involved in the work so that they can develop an appreciation for the land that they live on." Trees Atlanta's education programs like the Youth Tree Team are going to expand over the coming years to help more people in the metro area share that appreciation. "We're looking to be the key educator on forests in the city of Atlanta," Render said. "And a key part of that is the work we do here with the Youth Tree Team." They received 130 applications for the 2019 program and are expecting that number to reach 200 next year. "The process of growing the program and getting kids interested in nature is a big task, but it's not very hard when you have a passion for it like I do," Harper said. "My passion for nature, which I got from my father, comes first, but my passion for working with these kids is a close second. I feel like this is me giving back and giving these kids great experiences in nature like I had growing up. They'll remember it for a lifetime; they just have to have somebody to teach them." At the end of their seven weeks together, the Youth Tree Team presented together, the Youth Tree Team presented on their projects and what they learned to family, friends, Trees Atlanta staff and others. It was clear by the faces of many of the parents in the room that they were amazed by how much their kids had learned and grown through the program. Greg Levine, co-executive director of Trees Atlanta, marveled at the potential for the Youth Tree Team graduates: "We know you're going to make a difference in this world."

Finding the Common Bond

Troy Harris is, among other things, a translator. In his work as managing director of Jamestown's timber business, which owns and manages timberlands in the Southeast, he has to be able to talk to a wide variety of audiences every day: loggers, hunters, foresters, mill owners, legislators, colleagues on the seventh floor of Ponce City Market in midtown Atlanta and people he bumps into downstairs in the food hall. "You have to be able to resonate and be in their environment to reach them where they are, and I'm comfortable in that role," Harris said. "It's allowed me to share my passion for forestry with diverse audiences. That's what really gets me excited." Harris stresses how important it is for the forestry industry to be proactive in sharing its significance with those who don't see it or engage in the business on a regular basis. "I think there's not an awareness of what we in the timber business do in metro areas. And it's up to us to do that heavy lifting," he said. "We've got to bring our story to diverse audiences so that they understand and see what we do as a great benefit to our state."

Troy Harris, managing director of Jamestown's timber business. Jamestown's office along the Atlanta BeltLine in Ponce City Market provides opportunities for capturing an urban audience. (Photo by Brady Hummel)

And he's an expert at sharing a working forest message with people who are not the traditional forestry audience: metro Atlanta residents. Harris says that finding the interests they have in common is critical to connecting with the person in front of him. "When you're talking to a metro audience and people who don't get into the woods often, what they care about is clean air, clean water and wildlife. Nobody's opposed to those things," he said. While many have a knee-jerk reaction when they hear about forestry - visualizing clear cuts and deforestation - Harris doesn't encounter many who are opposed to hearing him out. "There are so many people who just don't know, and they're willing to learn," he said. "And when you're willing to share that working forest message and give them opportunities and experiences and tell them your story, it doesn't take long for them to get onboard with the good forestry does for the environment and the economy." He gets excited at the prospect of providing eye-opening moments for people at the Farmers Market at Ponce City Market. Harris and Jamestown, which owns and manages the historic mixed-used building along the BeltLine, have been instrumental in bringing the Georgia Forestry Foundation (GFF), the Georgia Forestry Commission (GFC) and the Chattahoochee Nature Center (CNC) to some of the market events. They've shown GFF's virtual reality platform, held meet-and-greets with GFC rangers and provided hands-on experiences with animals through CNC. "When people are coming into this building for the Farmers Market or to shop or eat, they may come across an opossum or gopher tortoise or even Smokey Bear and say, 'What's up with that?'" Harris said. "And so they want to go over and see it, and we can interact with them and tell them our story and how working forests provide wildlife habitats and many other things that positively impact our lives." "Most of these people have never planted a tree," he continued. "Many of them have probably never seen a gopher tortoise. They might not get away from the city very often. So, it's a unique opportunity to touch those people and bring that education to them." Harris also had the good fortune a couple of years ago at Ponce City Market to share the timber story with over 21 metro Atlanta Representatives from the General Assembly led by Stacey Abrams. "We discussed the benefits of Georgia being the number one state for forestry in the country and the good we do for the environment," he said. Harris touted how important these relationships are so that all Georgians appreciate the value of our industry. Harris sees opportunities to change people's perceptions about working forests in our everyday lives. "We can't expect everyone to make it into the forests. We have to engage them where they are," he said. "I think it's easier to learn how to speak a little bit of somebody else's language than to try to teach them yours. It shows a lot of faith if you're demonstrating that you care about what they do and can bring it into their terms of language. I find once people hear our story, they become receptive and bonds can be formed."

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