Forests work hard for Georgia year-round, yet autumn is the season for them to really show off. When maples, sourwood, dogwoods and other leafy beauties rotate through their vibrant fall wardrobes, people come out in droves to admire them. Mixed with the myriad shades of plentiful evergreens, locals and visitors alike are known to ooh and aah. North Georgia is celebrated for this fall foliage display and the Georgia Forestry Commission (GFC) tells everyone all about it through its annual “Leaf Watch” service. “I have a passion for the mountains, the trees and the outdoors in general,” said GFC Management Forester Ben Cobb. “When my supervisor told me last year that I could be on the team that supplies fall foliage information, I jumped at the chance!”
Cobb has been a tree fan since he was a kid growing up in Cordele, GA. North Georgia and western North Carolina were favorite family vacation spots, and he pursued his enthusiasm for the woods by establishing a career in forestry. He worked at GFC’s Flint River Nursery for more than seven years before transferring to the agency’s Gainesville Area office.
“Fall foliage is a big part of the local economy,” said Cobb, “and people come from all over the world to enjoy it. When I encounter them, they’re interested in what I do, and in the fall I can direct them to our website for information. Plus, for North Georgia forestland owners, I can tell them about all the services GFC offers.
It was almost two decades ago when GFC’s Public Relations Department launched “Leaf Watch 1.0.” Staffers informally gathered foliage updates from agency foresters working in North Georgia, then wrote reports and shared them via a 1-800 number every Thursday. Each subsequent year, GFC took steps to broaden Leaf Watch’s reach, incorporating support from various media outlets and sister agencies. Fox 5 (WAGA) TV’s Chief Meteorologist David Chandley has been GFC’s primary television leaf reporter since the early 2000s. “My whole reason for getting into the media business was to be the messenger [to viewers] for this kind of information,” Chandley said. “Being the messenger for leaf information is a whole lot easier than being the messenger for weather information! In all these years, I’ve never had one complaint.”
Retired GFC Public Relations Director Sharon Dolliver recalled the program’s somewhat humble beginnings: “We used to call GFC’s district supervisors in North Georgia and get a basic update for the week,” she said. “We also collected information about notable species that were turning and any area festivals and the like. A script was written and then recorded on our automated 1-800 number for anyone who was interested.” If You Tell Them, They Will Come Turns out, many people are interested in Georgia’s fall leaf changes! Area foresters frequently receive foliage questions, especially when they’re out and about during the autumn months. If your forest science studies are a little hazy, remember that as the season changes from summer to fall, temperatures drop and days get shorter. Trees receive less direct sunlight, and the chlorophyll in the leaves breaks down. The lack of chlorophyll reveals yellow and orange pigments that were already in the leaves but were masked during the warmer months.
Retired GFC District Forester Ken Masten remembers his annual Leaf Watch role as one of his favorite responsibilities. “I enjoyed taking different routes to get a look at the progression [of the leaves],” said Masten. “Starting out on the Richard Russell, then Brasstown Bald and Suches; Highway 60 between Dahlonega and Morganton, Hiawassee and Clayton were good spots. I could get up about 3,000 feet in my vehicle for a great overview.” Masten said he often encountered out-of-state visitors who would see the GFC logo on his truck and flag him down for details about the leaves.
“There was a man from Florida visiting with his wife and daughter who’d never experienced leaf season,” he said. “They tried to pin me down on the exact dates the leaves would reach their peak. I said ‘Don’t put that on me!’” While predicting “peak” is a time-honored North Georgia tradition, foresters understand that many factors influence foliage change, peak color and leaf fall.
An early frost has been known to jumpstart a vibrant leaf season and rugged weather has been known to hasten its end. “Some years ago, we’d say things start changing at the end of September,” Masten recalled. “Now there’s really no change until the second week in October, and the season stretches into November.”
Easier to Gather… Easier to Get Information-gathering and technology improvements have greatly enhanced the Leaf Watch product, enabling GFC to reach more people. Assigned foresters across the North Georgia region (divided into West, Central and East zones) bring uniformity to the weekly reports. Designated GFC foresters not only interpret leaf changes and the effects of weather, they also take photographs and videos on their cell phones. Images are automatically geo-referenced so photos and locations are marked on GFC’s interactive Georgia Leaf Watch map online and can be shared on TV broadcasts. Foresters use Go-Pro cameras mounted in GFC trucks to gather video that also helps tell the visual story for television and online audiences. Even GFC’s aircraft are equipped with a mounted camera to capture the blankets of striking colors from above.
Streamlined reporting systems now enable foresters to submit weekly updates to GFC’s PR Department. There, the information is collated into one summary, paired with photos and videos and distributed to media partners and posted online at GATrees.org. WSB 95.5 FM’s Ashley Frasca, who hosts the station’s Saturday morning “Green and Growing” program, said she is proud to partner with GFC for this service to her listeners. Frasca is joined on air by Georgia Forestry Commission Urban Forester Seth Hawkins every Saturday during leaf season to summarize conditions and provide insight into forestry in Georgia.
“Fall is magnificent in Georgia and it is a tourism draw,” Frasca said. “Leaf Watch reports bring awareness about trees and the important role trees play in our lives. Plus, it encourages people to get out of the house, helps kids learn stuff, and just gets folks outside!”
Frasca is very active on social media, where she spreads the news about weekly North Georgia leaf conditions. David Chandley promotes the feature as well, as does the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Social media engagement and smartphone convenience make it easy to find current information pushed out by the GFC.
“Fall beauty in the forest brings people together outdoors,” said GFC Forest Management Chief Troy Clymer. “That creates opportunities to emphasize the value Georgia’s forests bring to our lives, economy and well-being. Well-managed forests provide these opportunities for our generation and for the generations to come.”
Forester Ben Cobb said last year was considered by many as “one of the best of the past five,” and with autumn unfolding, people are weighing in on the 2023 leaf season. As long-time leaf watchers, the GFC maintains that mild or cold, rainy or dry, fall in north Georgia never disappoints! ■
Stasia Kelly is a media relations specialist with the Georgia Forestry Commission. Stasia is focused on telling the story of forestry and the immense impact of the industry on Georgia’s environment, economy and heritage.
Georgia Forestry Magazine is published by HL Strategy, an integrated marketing and communications firm focused on our nation's biggest challenges and opportunities. Learn more at hlstrategy.com