Sustainability in Action: Alex Hedgepath

Post contributed by Kenzley Defler, Office of Sustainability Intern

Ask any Auburn fan about tradition and the answer will likely allude to the cultural importance of trees, as major victories are celebrated by rolling Toomer’s Corner. The famous Toomer’s Oaks have been deeply ingrained into the Auburn identity, one of many ways value is placed on the varying roles of trees. Aesthetically, the presence and type of tree also plays a large role in visual appeal and draws many people to notice the beauty of Auburn’s campus. While most people familiar with the area know of the Toomer’s Oaks, many people don’t consider other aspects associated with trees on a college campus.

Dr. Art Chappelka, currently an Alumni Professor in the School of Forestry and Wildlife Science and chair of the Tree Preservation Committee, focuses his work on the relationship between trees and sustainability. He explains that in addition to cultural importance, trees add many positive environmental services to the ecosystem. One of the most important is the absorption of carbon dioxide and release of oxygen by trees necessary to provide humans cleaner air to breathe. Trees are also vital for erosion control as proper planting around streams and wetlands can keep unwanted sediments out of the water flow. In terms of wildlife, trees provide habitat for many animals including birds, squirrels, bees, and other insects just to name a few. Combining environmental and social benefits, trees create shade, allowing relief from the sun and cooling down areas, which in an urban setting can help reduce the urban heat island effect. Clearly, the importance of trees should not be overlooked in any area of sustainability, and this emphasis is something understood and promoted by Alex Hedgepath, Auburn’s first university arborist.

Photo of Alex Hedgepath
Alex examines a tree to determine it’s health.

Alex’s interest in the field began after high school, when he worked for a landscape company and developed a love for plants. He also learned of larger sustainability issues through William McDonough’s book Cradle to Cradle, and developed a passion for conservation and a holistic approach to making positive changes in a responsible way. Upon coming to Auburn, Alex combined his interests focusing on sustainability and forest management within his forestry degree. Dr. Chappelka influenced Alex’s career interests through both course work and research. During his time as an Auburn student, Alex worked under Dr. Chappelka outside of the classroom on a campus tree inventory. Alex helped survey urban trees looking at the number of crew members needed for efficient management. It was during this time that Alex realized his love for urban landscapes and their design. Alex’s desire to couple forest ecology with the urban landscape brought him to his current position.

Alex describes his arborist role as a mix between campus planning, maintaining healthy trees, and ensuring community safety. His voice in deciding the ideal type of tree to plant, backed by his forestry knowledge, ensures ecosystem health and tree species diversity for campus. As emphasized by both Alex and Dr. Chappelka, there is a proper way to plant trees in terms of both the type of tree and placement in relation to hardscapes. Alex specifically enjoys focusing on which species of tree to establish and where they’ll be planted. His job is especially important in times of campus construction when tree preservation is critical as the landscape is being changed and redesigned. Removal of any tree requires the approval of the Tree Preservation Committee, a process that, according to Alex, is a very positive step towards sustainable management practices.

Alex does, however, experience some challenges to sustainability in his role as arborist, a main issue having to do with species availability from tree farmers. Ideally, species that are indigenous to the area are best, and Alex would like to focus new plantings on trees that could be naturally occurring in Auburn. In addition, in any urban forest system, diversity is vital to allow survival in the case of a disease outbreak or drastic changes in climate. Alex describes a sustainable forest as a diverse forest. The landscape of Auburn, however, is at the mercy of what nearby tree farmers grow, and the desired species are not always readily available. The dependence on outside providers inhibits diverse species composition. According to literature, having no more than 5-8% of a single species of tree on campus would be ideal. At Auburn almost 60% of trees are from 3 species: crapemyrtle, willow oak, and overcup oak; which could put the ecosystem at risk in the case of a disease outbreak. Through his work, Alex strives to combat this challenge by continuing to increase the diversity of trees found on campus.

Better resilience in an urban forest system also comes from the total amount of canopy coverage. Currently Auburn is around 15-20%, which Alex explains is not bad but could be increased to around 40%, an amount achieved by other college campuses. Increased canopy coverage makes the system more resilient to disasters, such as drought. In actively replanting and preserving what we have, Alex is taking steps to maintain mature coverage, leading to long-term environmental sustainability.

Another important focus of Alex’s work as the university arborist is ensuring public safety. As explained by Dr. Chappelka, trees can be a great asset, but also a liability if not properly taken care of. Alex stresses the immense importance of safety, and is qualified to assess the risk of trees through the International Society of Arboriculture. He understands the biology of trees and knows how to identify risks, enabling him to decide if a tree is a safety hazard and needs to be pruned or removed. Through careful inventory and risk assessment, Alex prioritizes making the highest occupied areas as safe as possible.

Although the university arborist is a relatively new position at Auburn, Alex’s work is already making a positive difference in community safety, as well as tree and ecosystem health. With his continued dedication, the versatile role of trees can be better understood and appreciated and the famous Toomer’s Oaks might one day be known for more than being covered in toilet paper.

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