Protecting a canopy as old as the nation

By: Vanessa Beeson

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Posted: 2/2/2022

Protecting  a canopy as old as the nation Photo By: Submitted

A study abroad got Rachel Habig-Myers thinking about urban forestry.

The Russellville, Alabama native and MSU forestry grad was part of the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange, which brought her to Rottenburg-am-Necker, Germany to study forestry for a year.

"The scale of properties, and the biomes in our urban landscape around the Washington D.C. area are similar to my experience in Germany, where they've actively maintained their forests for over 1000 years. Just by looking outside, I am constantly reminded that some of the lessons to be learned are actually 1000 years old. By seeing examples of the issues faced by others we can solve our own problems and improve our local environment," she said.

Habig-Myers began her MSU journey as a freshman architecture student but found a better fit in forestry.

"I heard the average life of a building was only 40 years and I wanted to study something that lasted longer, so I decided to switch to forestry. I count myself lucky to have been at MSU as a forestry student because it's such a good program to get the fundamentals of our science from a utilitarian standpoint. MSU is at the forefront of tree farming and agroforestry, focusing on the success of tree planting and management. Having that perspective is essential to understanding the range of attitudes and beliefs I see in my work every day, while also succeeding in growing and maintaining trees."

Now, Habig-Myers helps protect the canopy of Washington D.C.'s largest suburb, including trees as old as the nation. In her role as field coordinator for the forest pest branch of the urban forest management division for Fairfax County, Virginia, she is tasked with ensuring the county's canopy is protected from insect and plant pests. She implements and supports 15 management and monitoring programs for invasive insects, plants, and diseases.

"What excites me most is winning against bad insects and plants," she said.

It can be a challenge fighting forest pests in such a dense, urban environment.

"One fifth of our land is either under pavement or shingles, yet we still have over 50 percent tree canopy. We have 1.14 million people living in 404 square miles, so the area is densely populated with a single tree often impacting two or more properties. All of those factors can make pest invasions a complicated problem for us," she said.

Part of her current work is focused on mitigating impacts caused by the emerald ash borer, where the team has introduced parasitoid wasps as a biological control for the pest.

"We are starting a seed collection program to eventually plant ash seedlings where we've introduced the wasps. We hope to get the emerald ash borer to act like a native insect where it doesn't kill every ash tree it comes across, creating an island where the ash trees could survive where the emerald ash borer also exists," she said.

The team is also combating hemlock woolly adelgid, an insect that attacks the region's storied hemlock trees.

"Our area has been inhabited by European settlers longer than most parts of the country, so we only find hemlocks on really steep slopes. Hemlock grows very slowly so a tree 12 inches in diameter might be around 300 years old," she said. "We're working with Fairfax Fire and Rescue, who scale slopes for evacuations, to safely treat trees on a very steep slope."

Habig-Myers received her bachelor's and master's in forestry from MSU in 1999 and 2002, respectively, and another master's in environmental interpretation from the State University of New York College of Environment and Forestry.

"My research for both master's dealt with attitudes and beliefs about the environment. That is critical in my job now because I deal with the public's attitudes and beliefs concerning the environment. They may be upset because someone is cutting down a tree that shades their house. My yard is only ten feet wide. If my neighbor cut down their tree, I wouldn't have shade on my house, so I understand the emotion tied there. Understanding psychology and sociology in the framework of natural resources has been beneficial in helping people find resolutions to issues," she said.

Habig-Myers said her upbringing in Alabama and Shenandoah Valley, Virginia ignited her passion for the natural world.

"I grew up in the country and roamed free in both places. In the Shenandoah Valley at night, I could see the lights of Skyline Drive up in Shenandoah National Park. Even at night, I was connected to the nature around me with a sense of wonder and freedom."