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The forest through the trees

Couple combines technology and nature to ID tree species

Created date

March 22nd, 2011
During our modern age when technology seems to be honored over nature, Marge and Raymond Schwegel are finding a way to combine the two in order to raise awareness about what actually surrounds us. Tamanend Park is located in Southampton, Pa., just a few miles from theAnn s Choicecampus in Bucks County. Before it became a municipal park, Tamanend was a nursery where non-native plants like sequoias, redwoods, and magnolias were planted. Now the nursery is reverting to woods, meaning the older non-native trees are being overrun by the local population, Ray Schwegel says. Within the park s 100 acres, several hundred trees are growing, and the Schwegels, being Friends of Tamanend Park, are using GPS coordinates to locate and identify trees along the park s snaking trails.

Identification through GPS

At first, all Mr. Schwegel knew about trees was that he enjoyed them. But after attending a board meeting for the park, he found himself in charge of an identification project he had proposed. He then went to the library, researched species of trees, and thought about how best to map them. As a retired IBMer, he knew technology could be an advantage, and he also was familiar with IBM s incentive program that encourages retirees and employees to volunteer and give back to the community. If the program has a certain merit, Schwegel says, IBM will donate money toward funding it. Hand-drawing maps would be too archaic and inaccurate, but using GPS coordinates would be a more efficient way to locate the trees. Once the coordinates were established, a digital map could be built. So he went to IBM and got funding for the project. Since there are different sub-species within species of trees, Mr. Schwegel hopes to bring in experts to help identify the more challenging, exotic, less common breeds. Sometimes, a maple isn t necessarily just a maple, he says. Sometimes, there are fancy hybrids. In the few years they ve been locating and identifying the Tamanend Park trees, the couple has tagged between 150 and 175 trees; this season they hope to tag at least 50 more. We work off the trails, Mr. Schwegel says. There s no sense in identifying trees buried deep in the woods where nobody goes. Their current database combines both the identification and the GPS coordinates of those trees already named. When tagging, the Schwegels tromp around in the woods Marge pulls a wagon behind her with all our equipment on it, and they have fun doing it, he says. The season for tagging is late winter and early spring because the trees are bare. Under foliage, the signal just bounces around and we can t get an accurate reading, he says.

Digital record for the future

The Schwegels are currently developing a seek-and-find program mostly for kids. Ultimately, I want to give the kids GPS coordinates, and they can use their own unit which these days can be a cell phone and then they can go find the trees, he says. This helps younger generations, those who may be spending more time in front of the computer screen than out in nature, learn about their surroundings and perhaps appreciate them.