Macon State College hosts Arbor Day ceremony

Local leaders are taking their first major steps toward replacing the leafy, green canopy that tornadoes destroyed nine months ago.

At the state Arbor Day ceremony held Thursday at Macon State College, officials announced a new “Re-Leaf Macon State” fundraising campaign to replace the Waddell Barnes Botanical Gardens for which the college was known. The gardens basically covered the entire campus before being almost completely razed on Mother’s Day 2008.

“The gardens are going to return and be every bit as beautiful and luscious and intriguing as they have ever been,” said Macon State College President David Bell.

The Macon Tree Commission touted its own canopy restoration project, which starts with giving away 400 trees Saturday to residents of neighborhoods that were especially hard-hit.

Even as the crowd of about 75 celebrated the trees, strike teams with chain saws were helping clear debris from more tornadoes that struck elsewhere in Middle Georgia on Wednesday night, said Robert Ferris, director of the Georgia Forestry Commission.

Ferris announced that Macon had been recertified as a “Tree City USA” by the National Arbor Day Foundation, and Macon State became the second college in Georgia to receive a new “Tree Campus USA” certification.

Both had to meet a series of requirements to achieve the designation.

For example, the college had to create and fund a campus tree-care. Biology students conduct research on native pollinators and other topics in the botanical gardens, which fulfills part of the service-learning component of Tree Campus USA, biology professor Kim Pickens said.

Ferris noted that the city of Macon, which has been a “Tree City” since 1985, was early to hire a city forester to maintain the tree canopy.

However, the city has been without a forester for a year and a half, with the position frozen because of the city’s budget woes. Mike Anthony, Macon-Bibb Parks and Recreation director, said the city has nevertheless replaced about 30 trees during the past six months, on Third Street and at community centers.

Anthony said the city still is removing trees and debris from the tornado and still hasn’t had time to fully assess damage to the tree canopy.

Carol Salami-Goswick, chairwoman of the Macon Tree Commission, said the lack of a city forester has made the group’s job more challenging, especially in the wake of the storms.

“The forester is the person with the technical knowledge we need,” she said. “We feel that loss every day.”

The tree commission, a board established in the 1980s as part of the Tree City USA requirements, first intended its canopy restoration project to last about two years, Salami-Goswick said. It has raised almost $6,000, she said.

But now organizers are trying to find a way to make it self-sustaining, perhaps by holding a large tree sale as a fundraiser, she said.

Salami-Goswick said the tree giveaway Saturday targets those who sought help with replacing trees from the Bibb County Cooperative. Many trees will go to the Bloomfield, Lizella and Musella neighborhoods, she said.

In the coming weeks, the commission also plans to plant trees in Bloomfield Park, Evergreen Cemetery and at other locations, Salami-Goswick said.

The first major replanting at Macon State will be finished in March, said David Sims, plant operations manager for the college. He said 75 trees will be added as part of the larger building project included in the new Professional Sciences Building and Conference Center.

The rest of a master plan for the gardens created last year after the storms relies on the Re-Leaf campaign for funding, Sims said.

The campaign has raised $24,000 from faculty and staff in just one month, said Jessica Johnson, development coordinator for the botanical gardens. But altogether the college estimates it will need $2.5 million to $3 million to replant, she said.

The college still is negotiating with its insurance company, which has paid nothing for the tree loss, Sims said. Thursday’s Arbor Day ceremony culminated with the replacement of one of the college’s signature trees, a sycamore in the library’s courtyard.

Blake Sullivan, a forestry consultant and trustee for Macon State, noted that a sycamore reportedly was the tree under which the philosopher Plato taught his students.

Although the event was designed to celebrate trees, it was held inside the college’s new conference center. The audience watched the sycamore planting via closed-circuit television.

Afterward, Bell said the ceremony was held inside because it’s winter and the campus currently has few trees to enjoy. College officials also were eager to show off their new conference center, which includes a wraparound wall of windows that were designed to display the view of a small lake surrounded by trees. By the time the building opened in January, only a few skinny pines remained on the opposite bank.

“I don’t see the stumps,” said Bell, surveying the view of mostly mud through windows frosted with a pattern of pine needles. He grinned and waved his arms expansively.

“People like to overcome. And you overcome by appreciating the things you are grateful for, at the same time you work to rebuild.”