Roy Summerford


AUBURN -- When 22nd century visitors to Mobile Bay admire the spreading, stately oaks at the Marriott Grand Hotel, some of the credit for the majestic view will go to a group of today's Auburn University students.

The students are members of an urban forestry class that recently evaluated the health of stately oaks on the grounds of the historic resort and convention center.

Brenda Allen, an assistant professor in the AU School of Forestry, said her class of advanced forestry students undertook the study as part of the school's efforts to involve students in projects to preserve and renew some of the state's most valuable natural resources.

Ron Jackson, urban forester for the city of Mobile, and Cleve Formwalt, owner of a Mobile-area tree service company, joined Allen in leading the students through an examination of trees deemed the most critical to continuation of the hotel's image as a live-oak mecca.

The professionals will incorporate the students' evaluations as part of a comprehensive study of the about 70 live oaks, many of which have stood for well over a century, on the seven-plus acres around the hotel.

Sam Sealy, director of grounds for the Grand Hotel, said the recommendations will be used in development of a long-term maintenance plan for the grounds.

Observing the urban forestry class at work, Sealy said, "We are looking for solid recommendations on maintaining these trees. The students and professionals are providing us with information we can use to help protect the health of the trees."

Under the direction of the professional team, the forestry students evaluated the oaks for quality of trunks, roots, branch structure, leaf density, broken limbs and other indicators of a tree's health. Their evaluations will include recommendations on the best way to alleviate problems that can shorten the life of the trees.

The students and their mentors identified problems, such as soil compaction and girdling roots -- roots which encircle the base of a tree, cutting off the flow of nutrients - - that can shorten the life of the historic live oaks. The instructors also offered suggestions for prolonging the life of magnolias and palms on the hotel's grounds.

Aids students, hotel, state

"This provides a valuable learning experience for our students, who have already learned the theory in class and are ready for its application," said Allen, who is the AU Forestry Schoolıs leading authority on urban forestry.

"The evaluations at the Grand Hotel are typical of the work that urban foresters do in their profession," she added. "This type experience allows the students to put into practice what they have learned, and at the same time they are getting involved in the effort to preserve an important part of our state's natural heritage."

Allen noted that the majestic oak trees surrounding the Grand Hotel are an internationally recognized symbol of Alabama as well as the hotel.

Jeremy Waites, a senior in forestry from Talladega, said the on-site evaluation of the stately trees reminded him that forestry involves more than commercial production of pines.

"This is something I may have to deal with in the future, so Iım glad to get the opportunity to evaluate the needs of trees in a more urban environment," he said.

Urban forestry is an emerging field of forestry that is increasing in importance as cities, towns and resorts recognize the importance of maintaining trees within their boundaries, Allen said.

Landscape architecture class also presents ideas

The urban forestry group is the second AU class this year to use the hotel grounds as a teaching and outreach laboratory. In January, a landscape architecture class led by Auburn faculty member Brian LaHaie examined the hotel's entry drive and presented landscaping recommendations.

LaHaie described landscape architecture and urban forestry as allied professions.

"Real-world" projects comprise about one-third of the studio projects in the landscape architecture curriculum, LaHaie said. "A project like this reinforces the design principles we teach and makes them real in the students' eyes," he added.

The landscape architecture associate professor said the students developed plans which made use of the trees along the entry drive, recommended alternatives for lighting, walkways and the entryway and made more prominent use of color in the drive leading to the hotel.

They presented the hotel with several alternatives from which to choose in developing its landscape plans, he noted. "Sometimes all it takes is helping a client to see with fresh eyes," LaHaie said.

One part of a partnership

The Grand Hotel invited the classes to evaluate its trees and grounds through a partnership involving the Alabama Forestry Commission, the Alabama Urban Forestry Association, the AU School of Forestry, the Alabama Cooperative Extension System and the USDA Forest Service. The partnership's activities include on-site teaching and outreach activities of the School of Forestry and support for an annual conference on urban forestry.

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CONTACT: Allen, 334/844-1066; LaHaie, 334/844-5448.

** For assistance contacting individuals for additional comments from the Marriott Grand Hotel, contact Chuck Dickey at 504/565-5395. (Note to Editors): Allen and/or LaHaie can identify students from your area who participated in these projects if you need additional comments from students.