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Susannah Burley

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The Reforestation Advocate

Originally from Atlanta — one of the most forested cities in the country — Susannah Burley took for granted the number of trees in the city. She moved to New Orleans in 1993 to attend Loyola University, and then moved to Los Angeles in 2000 for eight years. While she didn’t really care for Los Angeles in general, she says she learned how the other half lives, environmentally, and she embraced the city’s environmental consciousness. “I’ve been a big jazz fan since I was small, and I love the music and culture of [New Orleans], and the easy, casual way that people interact here,” she says. “I also love to cook, eat and garden, so I’m in the perfect place.”

Although Burley has found her home, she has been concerned with the lack of trees in the Crescent City. Burley, who has a master’s of landscape architecture degree from Louisiana State University, previously served as program director at Parkway Partners, where she oversaw the ReLeaf tree planting program. Then, in June 2016, she founded SOUL—a program of the non-profit organization Trust for Conservation Innovation. “When I attended graduate school for landscape architecture, we had systems and stormwater management drilled into us, and for good reason,” she says. “I came away with the understanding that thriving infrastructure must be implemented as systems to function properly, and also that nature can and should be utilized as systems and infrastructure.”

Although she loved her position at Parkway Partners, she wanted to focus on reforesting New Orleans and she had her own ideas about taking a different approach. “We lost 100,000 trees due to [Hurricane] Katrina, and the U.S. Forest Service declared New Orleans the most deforested city in the country,” Burley says. “But our canopy was nothing to write home about before the storm. Right now, according to our internal mapping, New Orleans needs 1 million trees. This matters. Trees are critical to our ability to absorb stormwater, one of the city’s most crucial issues. They help slow subsidence (land sinking); clean our air, soil and water; lower air temperatures and energy bills; and improve community health. But in order for them to make real impacts in these areas, trees must be planted strategically, as a system, at a meaningful scale and in tandem with traditional infrastructure.”

Burley stays busy as executive director of SOUL, typically working 10-hour days and six-day weeks. However, every day is different; sometimes, she’s outside all day, and, other days, she’s at her computer from morning ’til night. “There are just two of us at SOUL, and we are [always] slammed,” Burley says. “November to March is planting season, and a great deal of my time is spent making tree plantings happen, from training block captains, to permitting tree locations, to hand selecting trees from North Shore farms, to overseeing volunteer plantings on Saturdays, to coordinating with funders. During the rest of the year, we host educational programming, perform community outreach, fundraise, maintain trees and work on changing legislation around protecting trees.”

SOUL recently partnered with Whole Foods Market and the Rotary Club of Mid-City to plant 150 trees in the Mid-City, Treme and Lafitte neighborhoods in what was SOUL’s largest tree planting to date. “We have partnered with the Rotary Club of Mid-City since our launch,” Burley says. “They’re a group of young professionals with a majority female membership who are very action-oriented and environmentally focused. Our partnership with Whole Foods Market began in a very grassroots manner. Someone from Whole Foods Market’s marketing team volunteered with us as a block captain. (This means she rallies her neighbors to plant trees at their houses, and serves as the liaison between the community and SOUL.) [She] fell in love with our mission and work, and she shopped our cause up the ladder until she found the right person to fund us.”

Nearly 130 volunteers participated in the planting event. Burley says that SOUL always plants native water-loving trees including Live Oaks, Red Maples, Nuttall Oaks, Bald Cypress, Sweet Bay Magnolias, ‘Little Gem’ Magnolias, Savannah Hollies and Ironwoods. “We always have food and drink afterwards to thank our volunteers, but this was definitely the biggest event yet,” she says. “Whole Foods Market employees were grilling, and there was a sno-ball truck and a Cajun band from Lafayette. It was wonderful.”

As for future events, Burley says that while SOUL does not plant in the off-season, the organization always has a lot going on, such as mulch and maintenance events. SOUL’s Community Forestry Educational Series, funded by the Keller Family Foundation, will occur in August. “We partner with the LSU AgCenter on this event, and it’s an 11-hour intensive workshop that occurs over four evenings,” she says. “Local experts present on different topics related to New Orleans’ urban forest, what trees do for our environment, in particular stormwater and flooding, and how, as citizens, we can replant it. We’ll have info about this event up on our website soon.”

SOUL also will be hosting several block captain trainings this summer to teach citizens how to reforest their areas. These trainings consist of 1.5 hours of training, and a lot of follow-up and communication with SOUL. And on Sept. 29, the organization will hold its annual fundraiser—an elegant affair that also reflects the fun-loving spirit of SOUL. In the meantime, SOUL is always looking for volunteers and sponsors. For those interested in volunteering or receiving a sponsorship package, please email sburley@soulnola.org. soulnola.org

On her short-term and long-term goals with SOUL: “Our big goal is to reforest New Orleans,” Burley says. “This is ambitious, but it’s absolutely doable. Our strategy is to plant neighborhood by neighborhood, starting with Mid-City, Broadmoor, Freret-Climana and Algiers. This means that we cluster trees in these communities. We’d rather plant 20 trees on one block than one tree on 20 blocks. Clustering allows us to more quickly impact flooding, pollution, air temperatures, subsidence and community health. If we are able to secure a DeltaCorps Member to work with us for the next year, we’ll be able to expand into one or two more communities and we would love for those to be Gentilly and New Orleans East.

Tips for those who are wanting to plant trees: “Before you consider what kind of tree you want to plant, first think about how big you want it to be, what you want it to do for you (lower energy bills, grow flower blooms, drink stormwater) and then select a tree based on that,” Burley says. “Do your research. Call LSU AgCenter, or an arborist, or SOUL, and plant the right tree in the right place.”

On the benefits of planting more trees: “Arguably the most important benefit to trees in New Orleans is their stormwater absorption power,” Burley says. “Live Oaks can drink over 1,000 gallons of water per day when it’s raining, while Bald Cypress can absorb 880 gallons. When clustered into systems, they can change how a community responds to a heavy rain. Aside from the other aforementioned benefits, trees are beautiful. They can alter our quality of life. There are numerous studies showing that areas with trees have lower crime levels.”