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Celebration of Service

A Giant Sequoia Grows in…Pennsylvania?

Ray Schwegel combines technology with dendrology to identify rare trees

On a piece of woodland property in Pennsylvania that was originally owned by William Penn, there is a 103-acre park that holds old and magnificent specimens of rare (at least for that area) trees. Dawn redwoods from China. Giant sequoia from California. Swamp cypress from Louisiana. Katsura from Japan. Trouble was, unless you were a dendrologist, there was no way to identify those special trees.

Enter Ray Schwegel.

“At a board meeting of Friends of Tamanend Park, I suggested that more people should become aware of all the different types of trees that are in the park,” he says.

Latitude, longitude and tree ID

Ray came up with a solution that combined technology and tree identification with a love of the outdoors. For the past three years, Ray and his wife Marge have been traipsing all over Tamenend Park, identifying and tagging trees—and tracking their locations by means of a handheld GPS.

“We walk along the park’s trails, and once we find an interesting tree, we refer to our tree guide books and ID the type,” says Ray. “We give it a unique number and fasten aluminum tags to it, and that information is entered into a database, along with GPS coordinates and a brief description of the condition of the tree. Later, we go back and fasten a small sign on the tree which contains its common and scientific name, as well as a brief description of the tree’s use.”

Ray, a retired IBM electric typewriter customer engineer and project manager, says the couple had to teach themselves tree identification first. “I didn’t know anything—I had to go teach myself. It was either that or hire a bunch of arborists, and I didn’t have the money for that.”

Legwork and patience

An IBM Community Grant helped fund the project, and the couple were off—walking for miles and tagging trees that had been planted by a previous owner a half-century ago when the land was used as a nursery.

The property has more than 100 acres – a lot of land for one couple to cover, but the Schwegel’s volunteer project melds several of their interests. “We always liked being out in nature, and we saw this as a way to combine our love of the outdoors with educating the public—and getting some physical exercise, as well,” says Ray.

Progressing through the park, finishing off one section and moving to the next, is satisfying. This slow and patient volunteer work also provides real-time gratification. “One time we came across a couple from the state of Washington who had never seen a sugar maple and didn’t know how the sap was harvested. They commented that they appreciated that someone had taken the effort to identify the trees. They didn’t know we were the volunteers who did the work.”

Next steps for the next generation

Ray and Marge are in the process of creating a “scavenger hunt” program for children that will allow them to use the GPS technology that is built into their cell phones to find trees. It’s a terrific way to get kids out into the natural world, but Ray acknowledges that Mother Nature can play tricks with the accuracy of the GPS: “During the summer, the leaves interfere with the readings. As a result, I’m working on providing clues in addition to the latitude and longitude locations of the trees. This is a work in progress!”

Ray and Marge came to their project because they were members of a group dedicated to preserving land that provides badly-needed green space in their community. They found an organization they believed in, and offered their time and talents to support its efforts. But they say it’s not a one-way street.

“Volunteering gives back to the volunteer,” Ray says. “It makes you feel good that you are, in a small way, making a difference in the world.”

IBM is marking its centennial year with a worldwide celebration of volunteer service. Throughout 2011, IBM invites everyone to join our global community of employees, retirees, families and friends as we support the communities where we work, live and learn together.