Donna Yowell | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Donna Yowell

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In a famous Shel Silverstein tale, a man who unwittingly benefits from a tree's kind gifts ignores the tree, to both their detriments. While trees are probably not sentient or as charming as the one in "The Giving Tree," it's easy to forget that every tree provides the community with valuable benefits—from generating the oxygen we need to breathe to simply providing shade from Mississippi's often-brutal summer heat.

Donna Yowell, executive director of the Mississippi Urban Forest Council, has dedicated her career to helping people and communities understand the importance of trees.

Brookhaven-born and Jackson-raised, the 57-year-old Yowell's love of nature is undoubtedly a product of the long days she spent with her forester father.

"I do have a background of spending a lot of time out in the countryside in Lincoln County learning about trees," Yowell said.

Yowell holds with a bachelor's of science degree in horticulture from Mississippi State University. After a brief stint as a florist, Yowell found her true passion in planning environmental consciousness-raising events in Madison and throughout the Jackson area.

"I love interacting with the crowd and presenting the information in a way that appeals to them, and might entice them to learn more" Yowell said.

Yowell has spent the last 17 years working with the Mississippi Urban Forest Council, and now leads the organization. The council owes it existence to the federal farm bill—most recently called the Food, Farms and Jobs Act.

"It says that every state has to have an education arm of urban forestry," Yowell says.

MUFC acts as an education and advocacy group for the trees of Mississippi, meeting with policy makers and citizens to promote the importance of trees.

"Trees are kind of one of those things that people take for granted," Yowell said. "When they're gone is when we step back and notice, 'Hey, something is different here,' and often that difference isn't positive."

Raising the public's awareness of the difference trees can make is the primary focus of this year's annual City Green Conference. It will take place the first week in October.

"We have a number of programs—we will be introducing those at the conference ... that actually determine the value of your trees," Yowell said.

Conference goers will learn how well-placed trees can raise the property value of a neighborhood, provide shade to save on energy costs and purify our air and water. Yowell and the council will unveil a study of Jackson's tree canopy during the conference, and she encourages city officials to attend, offering 25 scholarships to attend the event to elected officials. Scholarships are also available to students, arborists and MUFC members, all on a first-come basis.

Yowell's favorite students are her children and, as her father did for her, she has instilled in them a passion for nature. Her son, Taylor, is an organic farmer in Virginia, and her daughter, Samantha, who recently gave Yowell her first grandchild, is married to a Mississippi farmer.

"They grew up identifying plant samples on the side of the road, so I guess it rubbed off on them," she said.

The Green City Conference is Oct. 2-4 at the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science (2148 Riverside Drive). The cost to attend is $95 for all three days or $50 for one day. For more information about the conference and MUFC, or to register, visit www.msurbanforest.com.

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