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Green Machine: How data and design are nourishing Baton Rouge Green’s growth across the region

By Jeffrey Roedel
Snagging the dry crusty outer bark of a towering pine, the claw hook holds strong as Christopher Cooper wraps his chrome-clad diameter tape around the thick trunk at breast height. The program specialist for Baton Rouge Green tracks his measurements with a series of taps as he navigates an app on the tablet hanging around his shoulder like a holster.

Staff of Baton Rouge Green, from left, Director of Operations Robert Seeman, Executive DIrector Sage Roberts Foley and Program Specialist Chris Cooper. | Photo by Tim Mueller for the Baton Rouge Area Foundation
Staff of Baton Rouge Green, from left, Director of Operations Robert Seeman, Executive DIrector Sage Roberts Foley and Program Specialist Chris Cooper. | Photo by Tim Mueller for the Baton Rouge Area Foundation

The late June sun is baking these empty suburban sidewalks, but Cooper, in a helmet, neon yellow vest and matching face covering, is collecting data on the trees in a Millerville-area neighborhood. This is the boots on the ground part of Baton Rouge Green’s continuous BR i-Tree Inventory, an online map that can be mesmerizing for data hounds—and the reason I know that not only is the clutch of trees near my home filled with Bradford pears, but a string of other facts about the trees’ benefits, everything from storm water management, air quality, carbon, and energy conservation to property value increases.

Residents often stop Cooper and ask him what he’s doing near their front yard and why he cares so much about trees—to which he has a lucid, lengthy and scientifically backed answer.

Many of his musings and facts end up as posts on the group’s Instagram page run by Cooper. The trouble-shooting #InvasiveSpeciesSpotlight is a follower favorite. Mostly, though, people who spy him at work just want to make sure he’s not going to cut the trees down. You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone—or even under misperceived threat, as it turns out.

“Right tree, right place, is always a big conversation to have with residents—like this water oak over here,” Cooper says pointing upward. “Not a great species for the urban environment. Limbs will drop in a few years. It’ll destroy the sidewalk and street. Something smaller would be healthier overall, and you can plant more of them to still provide the same carbon benefits.”

Baton Rouge Green has now identified, measured and mapped more than 45,000 public trees, and Cooper’s work is far from done, but as he adds another colorful dot to the map, he stresses the importance of getting an arborist to assess trees on both residential and commercial properties every few years. And consulting one before planting anything new is crucial to realistic maintenance. Even without an arborist, the organization’s increasingly informative website can do in a pinch.

Cooper doesn’t just see a street in front of him, he sees an entire urban ecology, one his team is working hard to enrich and enliven every day through Baton Rouge Green. Looking down a seemingly endless row of crepe myrtles, he sighs. “And more diversity would be nice.”

On Christian Street just off Perkins Road sits an emerald box, a David Baird-designed, ivy-covered modern home that now serves as the office for Baton Rouge Green’s staff of three.

Inside, executive director Sage Roberts Foley is waiting on a contractor. A small gold key her husband Cullen gave her on their wedding day hangs around her neck, and she talks at a spry clip. “Let’s not use the word beautification,” she says. “It’s not representative of all that’s happening. We do so much more than plant trees.”

Indeed, a lot has happened since the former business consultant left her position on the Baton Rouge Green board to take the reins of the 30-year-old nonprofit in late 2016. Even during the tenure of her predecessor Dianne Losavio, the traction and impact of Baton Rouge Green was beginning to grow outward and upward like the healthy branches they fight so hard to protect.

Foundation Fact: The Baton Rouge Area Foundation and our fund donors have granted $170,000 to Baton Rouge Green since 2015.

Strategic planning and a more focused mission, one driven by design and data, has led the change. “The last several years there’s been a concentration of what we want to do, a focus of the mission, rather than having a broad approach,” Cooper explains. “And I think, through our partnerships, like the one with the city and BR General on Acadian Thruway, people are seeing us as a trustworthy community partner.”

Justin Lemoine, landscape architect, is a board member and has been a part of this increased activity—from pilot pocket parks to the Neighborwoods program that improves blight in underserved areas.

Lemoine says the group’s staff is completely in sync with its large, active board that represents a wide swath of industry stakeholders concerned with the organic landscape of the five parishes surrounding the group’s namesake city. “The staff is dedicated, hard-working and aggressive about their passion for the role trees play in the health of Baton Rouge,” Lemoine says.

A board is never just a board, and a tree is not just a tree. The effort now is to show this to the community at large, Foley says. “We all share one environment with the plants and trees that surround us.”

In 2020, the nonprofit’s budget is well over $1 million, triple what it was just a decade ago. Partners like Lamar Advertising, ExxonMobil, Raising Cane’s and TEAM Toyota are more actively involved in projects, and a new public-private partnership has put Baton Rouge Green in charge of distributing federal grant dollars for urban forestry projects across the entire state.

“It’s really a one-of-a-kind situation,” says Mike Strain, commissioner of Louisiana’s Department of Agriculture and Forestry, when describing the Louisiana Community Forestry Program. “If Baton Rouge Green didn’t step up, this wouldn’t have ever happened.”

Louisiana Community Forestry Program is the kind of federal -funded grant program that is almost always administered by state forestry agencies. In Louisiana’s case, budget cuts and staff shortages created a quandary. Federal dollars for new urban green spaces and improvements were there for the taking, but there was no state office with the time, personnel or expertise to oversee the money management, much less the projects themselves.

Enter Baton Rouge Green. Foley says the deal not only increased the group’s reach but also its budget for staff and strategic awareness campaigns.

“As these urban forestry projects take off around the state, there’s a huge net result for the environment, but beyond that they really help encourage a tight-knit community and become centerpieces for these areas,” Strain says. “When kids plant a tree, it becomes ‘their tree,’ and it instills in them a sense of pride and belonging in their community.”

Statistics on the health benefits of green spaces are solid and wide-ranging, and Baton Rouge Green Director of Operations Robert Seemann takes notice every time it rains.

“From the air we breathe, to the economic value, to the mental and physical benefits: Trees are the most cost-effective infrastructure we have.” ”
“Even when my daughter is at day care on a rainy day, and they have to stay inside, I can tell the difference in her demeanor when I get home,” he says. “We need healthy outdoors to be healthy.”

Seemann believes people are now realizing information is a service and they are appreciating groups that give them data and good ideas more than ever—an opportunity Baton Rouge Green is gladly seizing.

A former firefighter who served in a forestry battalion that suppressed wildfires by charging into treacherous rural places outside the reach of standard firefighting equipment, even now Seemann is a fearless troubleshooter.

Beneath those towering pines, as Cooper measures them, Seemann discusses the problem of ball moss. Baton Rouge Green cleared the entire Downtown Development District of the invasive plant last year. He describes his organization as a nimble connector that can address problems head on.

“It’s fairly easy to find people who want to fund cool things—it’s when the maintenance comes in that things get sticky,” Seemann says. “We’re kind of the lubricant that makes the city and private industry gears work well together.”

Those successful projects include studies like the recent collaboration with Exxon and Southern University to examine the effect of biochar—agricultural waste burned into a charcoal substance—on newly planted trees, and the popular food desert-fighting City Citrus program.

Spawned from an idea by artist and philanthropist Winifred Ross Reilly, City Citrus uses plots beneath Lamar billboards as open-source city orchards. To date, more than 400 citrus trees have been planted, and last year’s City Citrus Pick Event yielded 4,600 pounds of fruit for the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank.

“The organization is really willing to take on new projects, new ideas and to evolve,” says former board member and avid outdoorsman Jim Purgerson. “Sage’s passion for making a difference trickles down, and I’ve seen volunteers turn into significant donors over the years.”

Past board president Rawlston Phillips III says Foley’s unique ability to navigate various groups, sectors and stakeholders has benefited Baton Rouge Green. “Her heart is in it, and she has a persistence in humility,” Phillips says. “It’s not easy to interact with so many different kinds of people and still be effective. But she does that, and she influences people.”

The developer knows that balance is often undervalued in new growth, but sees Baton Rouge Green addressing balance, be it on the board or in the greater Baton Rouge community. “You create a new path only if everyone buys into the vision,” Phillips says. “The collective good has be to central, and it takes a certain humility on the board to achieve that.”

That collective good got a new brand name this August with Baton Rouge Green’s Healthy Trees, Healthy Lives campaign rolling out via outdoor and print advertising and digitally animated short films for social media.

Back at the office, Seemann reviews the latest version of one of the videos, which looks like a beautifully textured cardboard diorama sprung to life and zooming past joggers and rooftops and treetops with its catchy, stat-backed message: Trees mean more than paper.

“It’s really rewarding working with positive, forward-thinking people,” Seemann says. “Even in tiny baby steps we are making a difference. It’s not a light switch. It’s a slow chipping away at the crusty shell. We are allowed to have nice things in Louisiana, to take care of things, build better things and make Louisiana a better place to live.”

For Foley’s vision, the pandemic has introduced a level of donor uncertainty that is unusual for the group as of late, but those next steps could include involvement in the city’s MoveBR transit infrastructure projects, ways of decreasing storm water and flood events across the region, and projects for installing urban forestry designs along Airline Highway and in the medians on Staring and Burbank boulevards.

“The data is clear,” Foley says. “Well-maintained green spaces, especially green spaces with mature trees, are crucial to every person’s quality of life. From the air we breathe, to the economic value, to the mental and physical benefits: trees are the most cost-effective infrastructure we have. Period.”