By Irmarís Rivera-Llavona, Laura Allen, Dr. Amanda Dewey, and Dr. Jeffrey Warren
The American Geophysical Union’s Thriving Earth Exchange brings together scientists, community leaders, and sponsors to work toward solving local challenges related to natural resources, climate change, and natural hazards. Our group of diverse leaders and experts have joined forces to address climate change through tree canopy preservation in Berwyn Heights, Maryland: Lauren Allen, Town Manager of Berwyn Heights; Dr. Amanda Dewey, Mayor of Berwyn Heights; Dr. Jeffrey Warren, Plant Physiologist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee; and Irmarís Rivera-Llavona, Operations Coordinator at EcoExploratorio: Museo de Ciencias de Puerto Rico in San Juan. Irmarís manages the tree canopy project as part of her role as an ASTC-sponsored Thriving Earth Exchange Community Science Fellow.
About the tree canopy preservation project
Our Thriving Earth Exchange project is focused on improving long-term forest canopy health, sustainability, and aesthetics. By removing invasive vines, we hope that the young trees and branches currently covered can recover and grow more leaves, which encourages tree growth, improved vigor, and long-term carbon storage. By also assessing regeneration and promoting new tree planting, we are looking to recruit new trees into the canopy of the future, where they can replace older trees as they progressively age, lose branches, and ultimately die.
Berwyn Heights is using the strengths of community science to find solutions to addressing climate change and preserving our tree canopy. Berwyn Heights is a certified Tree City USA community and has a long history of tree protection. The town recognizes that shade trees can improve quality of life, absorb stormwater, reduce summer temperatures to help save energy, and provide many other benefits. Residents, and specifically the Berwyn Heights Green Team—a residents’ committee focused on advancing sustainability goals—have prioritized the protection of the tree canopy after witnessing declines in the town and neighboring municipalities. Invasive species, especially vines like English ivy, have been identified as an important threat to the health of trees and contributor to canopy loss. The efforts in Berwyn Heights are unlikely to be successful at preventing further decline of the town’s ecosystems without broad community engagement that reaches all parts of the community. We collected survey data of canopy health and work with private property owners to mitigate invasive species growth, actively engaging community members and enabling the tree canopy to thrive and expand.
How a community science approach makes a difference
A community science approach offers key advantages over traditional, top-down approaches that can unintentionally exclude residents and community members. Involving community members in collecting data and developing solutions includes the lived expertise of community members in the project. Residents have valuable perspectives, knowledge, and relationships that strengthen outcomes and can be overlooked without meaningful engagement. Additionally, involving community members throughout the life of a project can support increased participation and community ownership.
So far, volunteers have conducted surveys that map the extent of damage by invasive vines in the community and took part in an ivy removal demonstration for residents. Next steps include further data collection on regeneration of young trees as well as volunteer removal of ivy and other invasive vines. Perhaps most exciting is the opportunity for residents to request assistance from project volunteers in mitigating vines in their backyards. This can provide support to residents in need and increase community connection between members of the community.
Next steps for the partnership and the community
One of the unique strengths of Berwyn Heights is the level of volunteer engagement. The town’s Green Team members are incredibly active and supportive of this project. We could not take this on without their enthusiastic support and hard work. The volunteer team also recognizes that equity and inclusion are perpetual efforts that require constant attention. We know that we have a long way to go to truly include all members of the community and consistently reflect on strategies to increase engagement and support equity.
Even in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, physical distance, and cultural differences, our team has managed to work together and to better understand the community’s priorities. Each team member has been involved with the project since the very first day and we plan to continue the collaboration between the Town of Berwyn Heights, EcoExploratorio, and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. We are excited to see where this community science effort leads Berwyn Heights and we hope that our experience will encourage other municipalities and museums to pursue collaborative, community-driven approaches to science and sustainability.