Donna Yowell on urban forest council
Donna Yowell, a Brookhaven native, now lives in Madison. She earned her bachelor’s degree in horticulture and forestry from Mississippi State University. Yowell now serves as the executive director for the Mississippi Urban Forest Council. She recently spoke with Sun reporter Nikki Rowell about the work the council does in communities across the state.
What are the main functions of the Mississippi Urban Forest Council?
“We are a nonprofit that provides education to communities and landowners about urban forestry and other natural resources. We also provide technical services. It’s so much fun. I plan events and educational opportunities. I do demonstration sites. For example, we have our 31st annual conference coming up in November in Ridgeland at the Craft Center. We will have all kinds of interesting topics dealing with natural resources. I do a lot of educational events across the state. I do a lot of local workshops. We go into communities and do demonstration sites. We do community fruit orchards. This year, we will be putting in a series of community pollinator sites. I love going into communities and working with local leadership to help do things that we can to help them improve their towns and their quality of life in their towns.”
Why do you feel that work is important, to focus on horticulture and forestry within communities?
“Healthy communities and living in a place that is aesthetically pleasing, but also healthy environmentally, is very important, not just for our economic development, but for ourselves as individuals. So, having clean water and clean air and green spaces, those sorts of amenities in your communities, are really important. If you look at communities that are successful, where people want to live, that have good business, those are the communities that are practicing those things.”
What are some ways that you partner with communities?
“We first go to the leadership and work with them. We also work with schools and different civic groups like garden clubs and local high schools and even churches. For example, Wells Methodist Church was the site for our first community orchard. After we put in the first one, we put in 15 others across the state. That was basically teaching people what kind of fruit we can grow in the city, what to plant, where and how to take care of it for our climates and soil.”
Tell me about the recent initiative the council is working on.
“That’s a project we just started this year. We did a pilot project with the city of Ridgeland. It’s taking the environmental things that we do in communities, whether it is the trees in the communities or the parks, taking it to another level where you use those sites for activities for your citizens. We do projects at those sites. It’s called horticulture and forest therapy. We used the city of Ridgeland’s retirement program as our pilot project. We’re about to take that program state wide and offer it to communities that have retirement programs state wide.”
Can you explain a bit about what horticulture and forest therapy program sessions are like?
“It’s about getting people out into the environment and doing gardening activities to address all sorts of physical and mental challenges, such as stress, kids at risk, addiction, pretty much all of those sorts of things. The project that we are doing at Ridgeland focuses on the retirement community, so the issues that we would be dealing with are creating activities out in the garden, out in the landscape, which would help them with stress, pain management, memory, socializing and a lot of issues that retirees may face as they get into their senior lives. It’s kind of interesting. It’s gone from an environmental, community health, economic development therapy type stretch. It’s all linked together. It’s all based on the environment.”
What are some of the ways the council promotes healthy and sustainable urban forestry and natural resources?
“It’s very important for us to consider our climate in Mississippi. Right tree, right place is critical. But that’s the same for anything that you are growing, whether it is shrubs or trees or produce, pollinator plants. We have to consider our soils and our climate. Two, when you’re working with communities you have to take in issues, such as rights of way and utilities and those type of things.”
How is the council funded?
“That makes it even more interesting, because we are an unfunded mandate. Every state has to have an urban forestry council to provide education to the communities and citizens, people who are planting trees and things and managing land. We partner with different state and federal agencies through grant programs.
We also have individual memberships. We have a lot of companies that promote environmental health.”
What are some of the educational opportunities the council offers to communities and their residents?
“We’ve got several things going on right now. One is the Urban Forestry and Natural Resource Conference. I don’t know if a lot of people realize this, but our state-wide conference is the only state-wide environmental conference in the state of Mississippi. So, anyone who deals with land management, community leaders, someone with parks and recreation, someone with a farm, a landscape architect who makes recommendations on things to do with land, these are the kind of topics you’re going to want to learn about. The other thing we do is offer local workshops. We will go into a community and invite surrounding communities.”
What do the workshops entail?
“This year, we’re going to focus on three topics, including pollinators, what to plant to attract pollinators. The reason pollinators are so important in our state is because insects feed off of certain plants and we have to have them to support pollination for our food production. A large part of Mississippi is considered to be in a food desert. Farmers have been doing this for a long time, but we are trying to get communities to plant plants in their community surroundings, why pollinators are important, what plants attract pollinators. So, we are doing pilot projects in eight communities around the state, and we will be doing workshops as well.”
Does the council do anything to address issues with deer populations?
“Whenever we are working with our programs, we try to help people understand how to manage the deer issues, because it is prevalent everywhere. If we’re recommending that you plant certain things, we try to say, ‘If you’re dealing with deer pressure, here’s how to manage that.’ Also, we like to recommend plant material that is deer resistant. Not to say it’s totally resistant, but it has a little more resistance to it. We also include information on invasive trees and plants that you do not want to plant in your community. And, of course, there’s the crepe myrtle bark scale that’s taking out crepe myrtles all over the state. We do education on those.”
What are some ways to deal with bark scale?
“There’s several things that they can do. Removal of the tree is not always necessary. Sometimes if you can catch it a little bit before and are aware of it, you can treat it. We don’t always recommend total removal of the tree. There’s different spray programs you can use on them.