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Southern University leads in urban forestry in U.S.

Urban and forests might not seem to go together, but just like good forestry practices make sure rural forests are healthy, urban forestry does the same for trees and landscapes planted in cities large and small.

Students in Louisiana who want to stay close to home have only one place to go if they want to major in urban forestry: Southern University and A&M College.

Urban Forestry is a relatively new field of study for Southern; it began only about 25 years ago, considerably more recent given the university was founded 138 years ago.

Yet this program has already expanded, becoming only one of two urban forestry programs in the country to include bachelor, master and doctoral degrees.

“Right now, our program is considered the most comprehensive higher education urban forestry program in the nation because we offer all three layers of degrees,” said Dr. Yadong Qi (pronounced CHEE).

Qi arrived in Baton Rouge in 1992 when the Urban Forestry program started at Southern. It was her first collegiate teaching job.

“So I didn’t expect to stay long,” Qi said. “I expected to get some experience then move someplace else.”

Twenty-five years later, the professor of Urban Forestry is now department chairwoman and director of the Urban Forestry Graduate.

Program at Southern University. She and 10 other professors and professionals each year help on average about 100 undergraduate and graduate students work toward their degree.

Qi said the idea is to show that urban forestry is essential to society, adding value to city dwellers’ living by caring for the trees in urban areas.

Southern’s program tries to offer a diverse experience for students to become marketable for jobs in their chosen field. That includes internships with federal agencies and private companies. An example she gives is with the USDA Forest Service in firefighter training.

One student used his experience to gain employment researching wildfires.

Companies offering internships to students in the Southern University Urban Forestry program include big corporations such as Davey Tree Expert Co., which has offices in nearby Houston, Charlotte, North Carolina, and Kent, Ohio, and Weyerhaeuser. Students also intern at government agencies like the Forest Service and Natural Resources and Conservation Service, as well as small non-for-profit organizations like Baton Rouge Green and Greening Detroit.

For Oscar Paul, a 24-year-old senior and president of Southern’s chapter of Society of American Foresters, he worked an internship with the Forest Service in California. There he used many of the things he learned about in the urban forestry program.

Deciding on tree species and planting them were part of the internship, but he also got to use some of the equipment he’s learned about.

“It’s a lot larger variety of equipment (used during his internship) and they go a lot more in-depth,” said Paul, who hopes to return to California to work in his field.

Cornelius Jackson, 21, interned with Monsanto and learned a lot about its seed production. He said learning how important trees are in an urban setting and how cities benefit from their oxygen production and carbon absorption was what got him interested in the field.

D’Michael Lucas, a 22-year-old senior from New Roads, interned with Davey Tree Expert Co. in Houston. He hopes to secure a job with the company after he graduates in December.

Making sure more students find out about the urban forestry program is important, said Chyanna McGee. The 21-year-old is president of the Urban Forestry Club at Southern University. The club does a lot of community service, she said, but primarily its goal is to help get more students interested in Urban Forestry.

“We graduate a lot of students, so recruiting is important,” the junior from Baton Rouge said. “We talk a lot about the importance of trees and the environment.”

McGee works in tandem with 20-year-old Asija Rice, a junior from New Orleans who serves as vice president of the Urban Forestry Club. Rice said he likes to focus on recruitment of high school students.

Rice said she didn’t know about the opportunities in urban forestry until it was suggested by a high school teacher and Southern professors introduced the program to her. Last year, she completed an internship with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

She learned about reforestation and helped at a site, planting longleaf and loblolly pines as well as water oaks.

“I got to work with foresters and replant the trees,” she said.

Qi said students who graduate in urban forestry often pursue jobs in the public sector as urban foresters, city arborists, urban forest coordinators or program managers for cities. They also can pursue jobs at the Forest Service and NRCS, such as forest technicians, foresters or natural resources managers, for example. Their training, however, is broader than for urban forestry.

Other graduates become certified arborists or entrepreneurs and start their own companies, such as Urban Tree Care Co., which is based in Baker, she said.

The urban forestry program, however, also exposes students to scientific research. Dr. Zhu Ning is the James & Ruth Smith Endowed Professor at Southern.

“I am proud of contributing to the education, research, professional services, recruitment and advancement of the Urban Forestry Program at Southern University,” Ning said.

The research she is particularly proud of deals with the assessment of Gulf Coast ecosystems. One such study involves the periodic flooding to which Louisiana is prone and elevated carbon dioxide levels. Students used tanks in a greenhouse to study saplings response to the stress from those two events. She hopes the results will be beneficial to cities.

“The project has yielded valuable results on tree species selection for flood tolerance and urban forest management in a changing climate,” according to Ning’s research.

Not only does it provide good data for urban foresters in cities, the research also was a beneficial learning tool for students.

“Students told me that their active participation in research and international collaboration helped them in developing scientific curiosities and interests in learning,” Ning said. “It also enhanced their skills, competitiveness, workplace readiness, global competency, professional network and marketability.”

Dr. Bobby Phills was appointed chancellor of SU Ag Center and dean of the College of Agriculture in 2016. A graduate of Southern University, he was happy to return to his alma mater and, with his background in horticulture, is a big promoter of the university’s urban forestry program.

“The benefits are multiple, the biggest one is exposure of our students, even our faculty, to new horizons in Urban Forestry and Natural Resources,” Phills said, touting the program’s leading role nationally, with the expectation it will continue to improve.

Some of that improvement that faculty say will benefit students in its urban forestry program is working toward accreditation through the Society of American Foresters.

“Initially it was pretty much dismissed (a specialized accreditation in urban forestry),” said Dr. Kamran Abdollahi, who teaches arboriculture and ecosystem assessment, “but then it took its own life and the pressure got to the point that the Society of American Foresters established a new accreditation, a specialized accreditation for urban forestry.”

Abdollahi said the curriculum used at Southern for urban forestry was initially used for the basis of SAF accreditation for urban forestry programs. At present, only one urban forestry program is accredited through SAF: Virginia Tech University. Although accreditation for the program at Southern has been delayed because of cuts in state funding for higher education, Southern expects to become accredited through SAF this year.

In addition to the program’s affiliation with SAF, several faculty members also are members of the Louisiana Forestry Association.

The importance of urban forestry is growing as more than 80 percent of the United States population lives in urban and suburban areas. Towns and cities include green areas for environmental and ecological benefits, including enhancing water and air quality.

Maintaining these urban forests has a real cost. According to a USDA Forest Service assessment from 2000, urban areas have an estimated 3.8 billion trees. Their value, based on replacement costs alone, is more than $2 trillion.

Value exists in sustainable forests, be they in rural or urban areas. Qi said the science for one is the same as the other.

“They learn urban silviculture, they actually learn silviculture; they take urban forest ecology, they learn forest ecology,” Qi said. “We train them so that their job opportunity will be diversified.”

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