Urban Tree Hunter Gathers Data in Detroit

  • Chris Kort examines a tree in Detroit. (Photo by Meg Cramer)

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

There’s so much to know about what’s happening in the world around us, and that information gives us insights into patterns and changes that could have a big impact on our lives. But all of that requires a lot of data – and somebody has to go out and get it. Meg Cramer met up with one of those people:

Chris Kort and I are standing by the curb on McDougall St on the north side of Detroit. We’re looking at a tree. Kort is tapping the screen of the tablet computer he’s carrying, he marks where the tree is, then adds details like its size, species, and health.

When we finish with this tree, we move on to the next one.

“I try not to miss anything, I’ve got to get every single tree. Never ending process.”

Kort does this all day long, walking up and down Detroit streets, counting every tree on city property.

“Since March I have surveyed 13,468 trees. And counting.”

The data from this survey will go to the city, the state, and scientists at the US Forest Service. It will tell a story about what’s happening to trees in the city.

A database like this has to be built manually by people like Chris Kort. Tree by tree. Kort is like the human version of the Google street view car – roving up and down blocks and adding to his map. He notices details that most people miss.

“I’ve actually been collecting pennies on the sides of the roads for, like four months. I cashed in 2,200 pennies yesterday. People just don’t pick them up anymore apparently. Ooh, we’ve got a different tree here. We’ve got an elm tree!”

Mostly, researchers are trying to nail down the basics, like what kinds of trees are in the city, and how many there are. But they’re also testing a new survey method, a survey that measures damage caused by invasive species.

That’s because Detroit is where the Emerald Ash Borer was first discovered back in 2002. It probably arrived in the wood of untreated shipping palettes. Now, it’s all over the Midwest. The insect infests and kills Ash trees.

“I would say we’ve surveyed maybe 8,000 ash trees since I’ve been here. Every single one of them is dead or dying.”

Kort is a surveyor for Davey Resource Group. The company worked with the US Forest Service to develop the Insect Pest Detection protocol. The Detroit tree inventory is the first time it’s being used.

Surveyors like Chris Kort note damage from all kinds of things – including invasive species.

Researchers will unpack that data to identify new trends, and learn more about old ones. Like how the Emerald Ash Borer spread through the city and beyond.

Chris Kort shows me some of the symptoms he’s looking for on a dying ash tree. First, there’s the hole where the insect crawled out, it’s shaped like an upper case “D.”

“You can see the D shaped exit holes, really obvious.”

And the galleries, grooved doodles on the trunk.

“So in between the bark and the tree this bug is crawling around, making this indentation I would call it, where it chewed away so it can move.”

One of the goals of the new pest detection protocol is to learn more about invasions at all stages so that researchers – and communities – can do a better job finding them before they get this far along.

David Nowak is a project leader with the U.S. Forest service.

“Nationwide, there’s billions of trees in urban areas, but in cities there’s often millions of trees.”

“But you also have millions of people. The people if they’re educated can start looking at some of these things, they can be detectives – if you will – or detectors of these insects and diseases when they come in. And maybe provide that information to experts to help determine what’s happening.”

Once the Detroit database is set up it can be monitored and updated by people in the communities.

The hope is that this relationship between communities and researchers will mean a quicker response for groups that are trying to keep invasive species in check.

For the Environment Report, I’m Meg Cramer.

This story was informed by the Public Insight Network.