Blue Heron Nature Preserve, Georgia Tech Collaborates To Analyze 30-Actare Tree Canopy – SaportaReport

By Hannah E Jones

With more than 80 percent Of the US population that lives in urban areas, Atlanta residents are fortunate to reside in an urban center that is considered a city in the woods. The people of Blue Heron Conservation Area are committed to ensuring that Atlanta lives up to its legacy as a green city.

Blue Heron is a 30-acre natural oasis near Chastain Park whose mission is to provide each visitor with a personal experience with nature through conservation, education and the arts. This year, the Blue Heron team partnered with the Georgia Institute for Technology to drone track the reserve’s tree canopy and how it changes through the seasons.

Blue Heron in Fall versus Summer. (Courtesy of Blue Heron Nature Preserve, Georgia Institute of Technology.)

Georgia Techs Javier Irizarry is the expert behind the drone, who visits Blue Heron four times in a year to capture photos and data points – including temperature, elevation and GPS coordinates – to track the wildlife sanctuary at any time of the year. The project started this summer and will run until next spring, with plans to continue in the coming years.

Javier Irizarry demonstrates the data collection process. (Photo by Hannah E. Jones.)

To collect this data, Irizarry divided the 30 acres into five segments. From there, he spends about 15 minutes per leg flying the drone 250 feet above the ground and scanning the treetops. The footage can be viewed in real time via a regular and an infrared camera and uploaded to DroneDeploy, a program that provides 3D mapping and analysis.

Once the project is complete, the Blue Heron team will use this research to better manage and protect its natural nests. For example, the drone footage allows the team to spot changes in the landscape or potential problems affecting forest health.

“We want to compare what our canopy looks like,” said Denise Cardin, Blue Heron’s director of conservation and operations. “We want to observe how our landscape changes over time. Like our pond that dries up and turns from a pond into a swamp. [It’s important to know] how our landscape is changing and how we can better care for and preserve it.”

As a by-product, the team is also able to use the data to track changes in the neighborhood. For example, when they reviewed the most recent data using SaportaReport, they found that neighboring development had cleared a section of land that appeared to merge onto Blue Heron’s property.

(L to R) Javier Iziarry, Denise Cardin and Melody Harclerode. (Photo by Hannah E. Jones.)

Once the project is complete next summer, the non-profit organization plans to share the information with local governments, universities and environmental groups to educate them about the project and advocate for further conservation of tree populations in the area. In an area as hot and prone to flash flooding as Atlanta, trees are an integral part of mitigating those effects.

“Those who manage these parks and green spaces with a multi-pronged approach can be even stronger stewards because we now have additional tools in our arsenal,” said Executive Director Melody Harclerode.

She continued, “Our reach spans multiple generations and not only is this information for adults, but we can also inspire the children through our camps and after-school programs to help them understand the importance of trees in their community. We like to find ways to not be isolated in our own [efforts].”

This dataset will be used to benchmark Blue Heron over the summer. (Courtesy of Blue Heron Nature Preserve, Georgia Institute of Technology.)

For Blue Heron, this initiative is about taking matters into our own hands, rather than reaching out to local communities to take responsibility for strengthening our green assets. The team hopes others will follow suit.

“A healthy canopy not only removes carbon dioxide from the air, it is also a very healthy resource for watershed management. All water runoff enters the reservation, is filtered through the soil, and enters the aquifer as clean water,” Cardin said. “I think Atlanta is starting to appreciate a healthcare umbrella and we want to be a part of that.”

Cardin added, “Maintaining the data will help us nurture nature as it needs to be in the Atlanta area and will aid in any future decisions.”