Money is tight and federal programs are being slashed left and right, but trees are still being planted in towns and cities across the country. Citizen tree-planting groups are forming in communities everywhere, and with help from new discoveries in urban forestry, they're making an important difference.
The word 'activist' used to conjure up images of angry protesters demanding government changes. Not any more. Today's community activists don't wait for the government to get things done, they take matters into their own hands. Citizen tree-planting groups such as AMERICAN FORESTS, through its Global ReLeaf program, and TreePeople in Los Angeles are built around the idea that empowering individuals and communities with knowledge, resources, and personal commitment will have a domino effect across the country - and it has.
"There were only about five groups with paid staffs and less than 50 volunteer groups when Global ReLeaf was launched in 1988," says Deborah Gangloff, AMERICAN FORESTS' executive vice president. "Today there are more than 40 paid and around 800 volunteer groups."
Training Leads to Action
Training community residents has gotten a boost from recent innovations in computer mapping and analyzing programs that allow a community to place a dollar value on the benefits its trees provide. Urban planners and average citizens learn how and where to plant trees for the largest ecological and economical gains through Geographical Information Systems (GIS) computer software programs, such as AMERICAN FORESTS' CITYgreen urban ecological analysis (see What Tree in What Place? on page 32 and What's New with CITYgreen? on page 9). Cool Communities, a local empowerment program, provides on-the-ground training to ensure citizens get the most value - and the most energy savings - from tree planting and surface-color lightening efforts. Cool Communities was developed by AMERICAN FORESTS in cooperation with the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy.
"People who live in an area are really the ones who care about that particular environment, so that's the way you've got to do it," says Gangloff. "You've got to train people within a community, then those people go out and rally their neighbors."
That sense of community is especially strong in hurricane-ravaged south Florida. On the Saturday after National Arbor Day, more than 170 Dade County residents gathered on the lawns of a Richmond Heights neighborhood wearing sun hats and gardening gloves, shovels in hand. They were ready to plant trees that would bring relief from Miami's heat.
Molly Feltham-Adams, a volunteer tree-planting trainer and landscape architect for Dade County public schools, showed volunteers - ages 6 to 74 - how to measure the distance from the side of a house to the planting location. She explained the importance of positioning trees to shade air-conditioning units and along the east, west, and south sides of a house - where the sun is hottest.
It was the kickoff of the four-Saturday Cool Communities Plant-A-Thon, a marathon tree-planting project to lower temperatures and energy use. The residents were excited, envisioning their community the way it used to be - home to lush palms and shade trees. Four years after Hurricane Andrew, Richmond Heights is still recovering. Caught by the eye of the hurricane, the community lost much of its tree canopy and suffered damage to most of its houses. The focus has been on rebuilding homes and schools; until now, lawn trees have been viewed as an unaffordable luxury that would someday be replaced.
But the Cool Communities program is proving that trees are an equally necessary part of the urban ecosystem. Recent studies show that an increased tree canopy brings a multitude of benefits: energy conservation, carbon sequestration, stormwater control, and a stronger sense of community among neighbors.
Dade County is one of seven pilot Cool Communities that will showcase the cooling effects of strategically placed trees and light-colored roofing. In each city, a local committee selects neighborhoods, recruits trainers, and raises money for the projects. The local utility company monitors direct savings, such as lower electric bills, and indirect savings, such as lower urban temperatures.
Jack Parker, a Florida International University professor and a pioneer in research on energy conservation through appropriate tree planting, has said the direct impact of planting shade trees is great. "The cost-effectiveness of planting a single tree near a house to actually shade the walls and windows is more effective than any other energy conservation measure I can suggest. And a $100 tree will provide $500 to a house just in terms of increased property value."
Coping with Funding Cuts
Recent federal funding cuts - including the elimination of the Small Business Administration's tree-planting program - require communities and private and nonprofit groups to initiate more tree planting programs than ever. Urban forestry departments in many states are feeling these cutbacks; in fact, Florida's Division of Forestry recently eliminated all 25 of its urban forester positions while retaining its 37 service and county foresters.
"But their focus is on environmental or classical forestry that deals with private landowners - not urban forestry," says Jim Harrell, the Division of Forestry's cooperative forestry supervisor. "So the other folks who always participated in urban forestry are taking a little bit more of a leadership role now."
For example, activists expect to feel much of the responsibility for implementing a new Dade County landscape ordinance requiring an increase in tree canopy and energy-conservation through tree plantings.
As other communities across the country successfully organize urban tree planting projects - with funding from private, nonprofit, state, county, city, or federal sources - they're also looking into analyzing their urban ecosystems to ensure smart planning (see Olympic Atlanta: Sprinting Toward Sustainability and Atlanta's Changing Environment, Spring 1996).
TreePeople of Los Angeles - a volunteer forestry, education, and outreach program founded in 1973 - began its Citizen Forester Training program 10 years ago. Citizens are trained in basic tree physiology, leadership, project management, site and tree selection, time management, and obtaining permits and funding. The training classes are open to the public, and according to spokesperson Kate Hahn, most who participate already have plans for improving their communities.
Long-term community involvement is crucial, she adds. "If neighbors are committed to the planting they will come out and make sure the trees survive by watering, pruning, and making sure the stakes are removed at the right time."
The tree-planting projects also lead to healthier communities - a twofold benefit. "It really works to bring neighbors together to build a feeling of community and it also really works for the trees' benefit - they'll survive much longer," says Hahn.
Another citizen group has been motivating communities across Connecticut to plant trees. Meskwaka - a Native American word meaning Alonquin, or always green - was founded in 1991 by Bob Ricard, an urban forestry Cooperative Extension educator at the University of Connecticut. Unlike most tree planting groups, Meskwaka is not open to the general public; Ricard uses word of mouth to recruit community activists. "Meskwaka cooperators" commit to a year of service and receive three days of free intensive educational, technical, and motivational training. Ricard's track record is good; over the last five years, 115 of the 125 volunteers have remained active after their first year. "Motivation is the key here," he says. "Volunteers go out into their communities and do amazing things."
Groups such as these provide motivation, plus technical information on planting, care, and fundraising, and they teach citizens how to incorporate trees into community planning and how to interact with government groups. "National tree-planting groups can't organize each community planting," Gangloff says. "We provide the background information, and that's all people need to get the ball rolling."
At an Arbor Day ceremony to kick off the Dade County Plant-A-Thon, local environmental groups, sponsors, students, and supporters gathered in front of the courthouse to celebrate the culmination of three years of fundraising, research, and planning. County Commissioner Katy Sorenson declared it Cool Communities Day and asked everyone to plant a tree in an energy-saving location. Students from Hammocks Middle School's EcoAction club displayed birdhouses built with Cool Communities' strategies in mind. Some had white roofs, designed to reflect sunlight, while others had traditional heat-absorbing black roofs.
Those attending learned the county, which encompasses Miami, could save $14.4 million if every resident planted one shade tree on the sunny side of their house. Nancy Masterson, AMERICAN FORESTS' southeast region coordinator and organizer of the Plant-A-Thon, announced the results era recent urban ecological analysis of Dade County using CITYgreen software.
With funding from the proceeds of 1994 and 1995 Global ReLeaf Earth Day Walks for Trees; donations from schools, scout troops, clubs, corporations, and public agency employees; and state grants, Cool Communities has laid the groundwork to increase Dade County's tree canopy. The Plant-A-Thon added 398 trees around 86 homes as it inspired community members and volunteers to continue their tree planting and education efforts.
Organization Key to Success
Masterson says the strategy behind community organizing is simple. She used mailings and informational workshops to recruit neighborhood leaders and gather a core of volunteer block captains. They educated neighbors about the planting project, selected trees from nurseries, and learned how to plant and care for them. Three days of tree plantings were held in Richmond Heights - Florida's first planned African-American community - and one in Homestead Habitat for Humanity's Jordan Commons, a development for low-income families incorporating Cool Communities and other energy-saving concepts.
Block captain Celestine Laborn, of Richmond Heights, said most people wanted trees but initially were skeptical. Senior citizens asked who would rake the leaves. Many were afraid because of their experiences during the hurricane.
It's a common belief that trees are a hazard during a hurricane, but often it's just the opposite. "My car was totaled and all the windows in the back of my house broke, except where a tree fell by my sliding glass door, and I think that's what protected it," Laborn says. "We couldn't get out the door, but it didn't break. Trees sort of form a natural barrier."
Florida International University's Parker agrees. "Although some trees fell on houses and caused damage, more commonly it turns out that trees actually protected houses, particularly clumps of trees located near a house," he says. "Trees don't crash over in even 140-mph winds; they're more likely to bend over. And once they're bent over and resting on a house, they actually can act as a wind ramp to channel wind over the house and reduce overall damage."
Laborn's experience helped sell her neighbors on the project. Before the hurricane, the cooling bill for her shaded house averaged $125; now it runs between $300 and $400. "I told them that trees bring your property value up and that the main purpose of this whole project is to help us save our energy, save on our electric bill...My sales pitch was, 'We're trying to make the neighborhood beautiful and cool it off.'"
The block captains' enthusiasm was contagious. Hermeine Gibson, another block captain, says, "Now everyone who didn't get a tree wants to get one!"
Elloree Mullins, a Richmond Heights resident, lost five trees in the hurricane and stood by watching as three new ones took their place during a Saturday planting. "This has just made me realize how nice people are," she said. "You never know people until you really need them, and then they come."
Members of Killian High School's ecology club raised money to plant three trees at a Richmond Heights house. Carol Farber, a teacher and club sponsor, brought 10 students to one of the plantings. "I think it's very important to get the kids and the community involved in the project, and not just have someone come in and do it for them," she said. "It brings out community spirit and involvement, and also a sense of responsibility."
Community involvement has been key to the Cool Community program's success, according to Dade County's George Baldwin, a member of the program's local committee and a Richmond Heights block captain. In 1994, Richmond Heights received a county grant for tree planting and education and, with help from AMERICAN FORESTS, planted 55 oaks at a middle school. That led to a neighborhood crime watch and tree-planting classes for children. A county grant funded a program that pays teenagers to plant and care for trees at elderly residents' homes.
"Cool Communities has encouraged the whole community to plant trees," Baldwin says. "It wakes up people and gets them involved. Where we planted trees, we had people talking to one another. Now residents know and look out for one another.
"I don't think anyone had ever thought in terms of looking at a community where you had a lot of elderly people who basically said, 'Well, I don't want a tree because I can't water the tree,'" he adds. "It opened up a lot of other doors, because many of the young people really took older people for granted. After first-hand experience in helping them, it was a whole different ballgame.
"If the county or some other entity had been the one to plant the trees, without giving consideration to the social aspects, the planting program would not have been as successful," he says. "Ours goes beyond that. I think the Cool Communities process needs to be duplicated again and again throughout the nation."
President Clinton agrees; in the Administration's Climate Change Action Plan - the national blueprint for reducing emissions, cleaning the air, and reducing reliance on fossil fuels - he recommends the program expands to 250 cities by the year 2000. (For information on how your city can participate, write to Jeff Beattie at AMERICAN FORESTS, P.O. Box 2000, Washington, DC 20013.)
AMERICAN FORESTS' Gangloff points out that it is the work of groups of individuals like those in south Florida that is making important changes in our environment. "Community organizing has to happen in each neighborhood," she says. "Cities are just groups of neighborhoods; they're made up of a lot of parts, a lot of backyards."
For information on tree planting groups in your area, contact your state urban forest coordinator, local Extension agent, or the national Alliance for Community Trees at 800/228-8886. For a list of state coordinators for community tree-planting projects, write to the Citizen Forestry Support System, AMERICAN FORESTS, P.O. Box 2000, Washington, DC 20013 or email CFSS@amfor.org.
RELATED ARTICLE: What Tree in What Place?
Mention Florida and images of tall palms swaying in tropical breezes come to mind. The official state tree is the sabal palm, and many visitors try to cram at least one coconut in their suitcases before leaving. But foresters and ecological researchers are beginning to realize that, environmentally speaking, palms are not the best tree for Florida's landscape.
Many palms are actually not at home in Florida; they are exotic trees imported from southern countries. According to Jack Parker, a Florida International University professor and pioneer researcher of energy conservation through appropriate tree planting, it is important to plant drought-resistant, disease-resistant native trees. Native palms include the sabal, royal, silver, and key thatch palms.
Parker stresses that a tree must be appropriate for its location. "If you take a swamp tree and put it in the middle of the yard, you're planting a tree that's going to require a lot of watering, which is an energy-intensive process," he says.
Shade trees are important for reducing air-conditioning bills and mitigating global warming and the urban heat-island effect, Parker says, but it is necessary to reduce fossil fuel inputs while maintaining these trees. "One of the ways to do this is to plant appropriate native, indigenous trees that are adapted to that spot.
"One of the best ways to preserve somewhat isolated, natural areas is to have as much natural tree canopy nearby as possible," he adds. "You don't do that with exotics."
Dade County's tree canopy is low - only 10 percent - in its unincorporated areas and half of residential energy consumption is used for air conditioning, according to an urban ecological analysis conducted using AMERICAN FORESTS' CITYgreen software. The analysis suggests limiting the use of palms because they provide little shade for reducing the urban heat island effect and air pollution.
Joe McGuire, project supervisor at Metro Dade's Department of Environmental Resource Management, suggests phasing palms out of the Florida landscape while planting more shade trees. Although people are realizing that Florida needs the energy-saving, cooling effects of canopy trees, there are also economical and emotional factors involved.
Economically, the state is vested in palm trees. "Nursery growers have thousands of acres of all sorts of palms throughout south Florida," says McGuire. "The Florida Nursery Growers Association is a powerful industry with a strong lobby."
"The controversy is over aesthetics versus function," he says. "The palm trees lend a tropical atmosphere to communities, and that's desirable. But from the standpoint of heat island reduction, it's not." - Kathryn Tenusak
AMERICAN FORESTS would like to thank the Dade County Plant-A-Thon's corporate contributors, including AT&T, Chevrolet-Geo, and Texaco.
Kathryn Tenusak is an associate editor at AMERICAN FORESTS.
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|Title Annotation:||includes related article on planting the right tree at the right place; formation of citizen tree-planting groups|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1996|
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