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Extolling the benefits of sustainability is one thing. In this cash-strapped, budget-conscious era, selling the concept to policy makers and others who hold the purse strings is quite another.

Urban forestry professionals are all too familiar with this challenge.

"The value of trees appreciates rather than depreciates," says Eric Kuehler, a transfer technology specialist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service. "The larger they get, the more they provide in terms of shade, storm-water protection, pollution removal and carbon sequestration."

Kuehler knows this —so does every other urban forestry professional. But in these challenging economic times, this salient fact often is lost on municipal officials and others preoccupied with strapped budgets.

In periods of declining revenue, municipal urban forestry programs are among the first to be cut.

With these challenges in mind, the Forest Service has developed i-tree as part of its ongoing efforts to help urban communities not only better manage but also to garner support for their forestry resources.

(Right: An example of a practical application of i-tree: a graphic depiction of tree species diversity in Florence, Alabama. Graphic courtesy of Paul Graham.)

The peer-reviewed software, released in August 2006, is designed to provide communities of all sizes with a better way to assess the quantity of their tree resources and, equally important, to illustrate the environmental advantages they provide.

"Communities are reluctant to sink budgetary money into trees," says Kuehler, who trains urban forestry professionals and others in the practical use of this software.

"What we're trying to do with this software is to show that trees have value. "

He says the software is especially useful in illustrating the value trees serve in providing long-term environmental benefits. Equally important, i-tree serves as a tool to help professionals, policymakers and others understand not only how all the elements of an urban forestry resource work in tandem but also how they can be better managed to benefit their community in sundry ways.

Forestry professionals also value the role i-tree serves in helping them better manage existing resources in a time of especially lean municipal budgets.

"We have some maintenance issues that we need to identify and quantify so that they can be objectively managed," says Paul Graham, who heads the Urban Forestry and Horticulture Department for the City of Florence, Alabama, who adopted i-tree several years ago.

Part of this proactive strategy calls for identifying future tree plantings as well as ensuring levels of species diversity — a critical consideration for urban foresters — and identifying any emerging problems.

As Graham sees it, i-tree also affords him with another key advantage: a snapshot of Florence's urban forestry resource that can be constantly updated.

"Things change — data can decline, deteriorate," he says, adding that using i-tree in tandem with GIS-related applications has enabled him to construct a moving picture that not only helps him better manage the city's trees but that also provides municipal leaders with clearer picture of the city's resource.

"We're getting it into a format so that people who make the decisions can look at it and understand it," Graham says.

"You want to be able to articulate a problem you're facing while getting those who can help you better understand the problem in order to solve it."