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NMSU geographers map trees on Las Cruces campus for sustainability

How compatible are the trees on the New Mexico State University Las Cruces campus to the desert Southwest?

Man outside points at trees
Buddy Clark, GPS field and GIS technician for the Department of Geography, discusses the different characteristics of the trees on the Las Cruces campus. The i-Tree program allows him to map all the trees on campus to see if they are compatible to the Southwest environment. (NMSU photo by Audry Olmsted)
Map with dots indicating campus trees
The dots on this map represent the different trees on the Las Cruces campus of NMSU. By mapping the trees, researchers hope to use the data they gather to determine which species are sustainable to the Southwest region. (Courtesy of the Department of Geography)

Researchers in the College of Arts & Sciences' Department of Geography are using a state-of-the-art program software to answer just that question.

The Spatial Applications and Research Center has been commissioned by the Office of Facilities and Services to map every tree on campus in an effort to collect their various characteristics and whether they are sustainable for the region.

To accomplish this task, the department has turned to the i-Tree computer program.

"This program allows us to identify each tree species on campus," said Buddy Clark, a GPS field and GIS technician for the department's SpARC lab. "By looking at the tree species we have on campus, we can look at what takes in the most water and which trees do well here. We can plant those trees that thrive in and can survive in this desert environment, and eventually phase out the trees that do not."

Initially started in May 2011, Clark is now working on a more in-depth version of the map. Out of 13 zones, he has finished mapping one zone and is working on another.

Through his process of mapping, Clark identifies each tree by their species and also looks at the diameter of the trunk, the condition of the leaves and the wood, and also observes each tree's location in relation to buildings, medians and other spaces. The computer program collects and stores all the data gathered.

More than 65 species of trees and more than 6,000 trees are on campus - a number that changes almost daily as trees are planted or removed - and Clark has tracked each one.

"The i-Tree program gives us a good management tool," he said. "Everything that a person needs to know about a specific tree on campus is available through the data collected."

This program also benefits students on campus. Carol Campbell, an associate professor of geography, uses the campus as her living laboratory and said her interest in the program is to help facilitate ecological balance on campus.

She is working with Clark to apply the program to NMSU and has also used it to produce lab activities for her students in biogeography.

The students utilize the program in the field to learn about the natural environment, as well as how to bring that information into GIS education to see how that data is analyzed and combined for such characteristics as carbon sequestration and oxygen production.

"I think this is a fantastic program," she said. "This is a wonderful start for Las Cruces and NMSU. Contributors such as Davey Tree and the Arbor Day Society have all supported this program because trees are one of those resources that are really critical for clean air, oxygen, habitat and provisions for all different kinds of organisms. I wouldn't like a place without trees."

Clark said the Office of Facilities and Services can use the data gathered when deciding on any campus upgrades or remodeling, and it can also be used for general campus aesthetics.