Washington, D.C. – Canopy Concerns

In 2002 — after reading an article about the alarming decline in the District’s tree canopy — longtime area resident Betty Brown Casey founded Casey Trees “to restore, enhance and protect the tree canopy of the nation’s capital.”[1]

“When the city’s taking care of its street trees, then the nonprofits and other groups can work on private lots,” says Mark Buscaino, executive director of Casey Trees. “That’s where we’ve really focused our energy.”

A healthy urban forest depends on good collaboration among all of the different entities that play a role in the management of the city’s trees, he adds. “I’ve always firmly believed that it takes a balance to protect and create an urban forest,” Buscaino says. “Nonprofits can’t do it all, but the city can’t do it all either.”


Casey Trees helps the District’s urban forest through a number of different programs focused on themes such as tree education, tree planting, tree care and policy and advocacy:

  • The organization’s Citizen Forester program trains its volunteers to become tree planting experts to assist in Casey Trees’ planting, tree care and other events.
  • Tree planting event at Bruce-Monroe Elementary School hosted by Casey Trees

    Tree planting event at Bruce-Monroe Elementary School hosted by Casey Trees. Credit: Casey Trees

    Its Community Tree Planting program provides individuals and groups with the opportunity to plant trees to revitalize their neighborhoods by planting trees in parks, yards and other spaces both public and private throughout the city.

  • The Water By-Cycle program uses bicycle power to water trees throughout the District, especially in areas where more traditional watering methods, such as trucks, cannot easily navigate.
  • Summer Crew — a high school summer job and training program that is partly funded by UFA through U.S. Forest Service grants— engages 10 high school students every summer to weed, water and mulch trees to improve their chances to survive the first few critical years of their life.
  • The organization’s advocacy team is currently working with the Council of the District of Columbia on the city’s tree protection measures.
  • Casey Trees’ annual Tree Report Card provides updates on the state of the District’s canopy.

Engaging the city’s residents in urban forestry will be a key to ensuring long-term success for the District’s trees and greenspaces. A 2010 University of Vermont Spatial Analysis Laboratory analysis of the District’s canopy reveals that “by land-use type, Washington’s residents control the largest percentage of Possible UTC [Urban Tree Canopy]. Programs that educate residents on tree stewardship and provide incentives for tree planting are essential if Washington is to sustain its tree canopy in the long term.”[2]

UFA’s Thomas relates that working with neighborhood groups is very beneficial because you’re engaging with people who are already invested in the health and vitality of their communities. UFA also connects with individual homeowners through its Canopy Keepers program. With this program, residents apply to adopt a tree near their property, and UFA delivers a free, slow-drip watering tub, which the adopter is responsible for filling with 10 gallons of water every week “from spring bloom until winter freeze.”[3] With the District’s warm, humid summers, these extra helping hands help ensure a healthy canopy.

Beyond city-owned and private land, the other primary manager of greenspace in the city is the federal government. Approximately 8,500 acres of the District are administered by the National Park Service (NPS), which is responsible for well-known greenspaces, such as the National Mall and America’s first and largest urban park, Rock Creek Park.[4] The Monumental Core — which includes the National Mall, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial and the World War II Memorial — contains approximately 17,000 trees.[5] These trees provide comfort, beauty and environmental benefits to the tens of millions of individuals that visit the Monumental Core every year.[6] These visits can often take their toll on the area’s trees, though, by compacting the soil, among other ill effects. As a result, the NPS is currently reconstructing the National Mall’s turf and soil.

View of the Washington Monument from the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool

View of the Washington Monument from the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool. Credit: AgnosticPreachersKid/Flickr

Construction is underway on three of the eight main lawn panels in the National Mall in order to make them more sustainable in the future. Some of this work involves using engineered soil to resist soil compaction and using durable varieties of turf. Other work revolves around enhancing the National Mall’s function as green infrastructure, such as installing underground cisterns to collect stormwater alongside a new irrigation system. By using stormwater for irrigation purposes, planners hope to help improve the regional water quality[7] — a major concern for many in the city.

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[1] Casey Trees. Who We Are. Mission & History. http://caseytrees.org/about/mission/ (accessed Sept. 19, 2012).

[2] The District of Columbia. District Department of Transportation. A Report on Washington, D.C.’s Urban Tree Canopy. http://ddot.dc.gov/DC/DDOT/Services/Tree+Services/A+Report+on+Washington,+DCs+Urban+Tree+Canopy (accessed Sept. 20, 2012).

[3] The District of Columbia. District Department of Transportation. Become a Canopy Keeper: Adopt a Tree. http://ddot.dc.gov/DC/DDOT/Services/Tree+Services/Become+a+Canopy+Keeper:+Adopt+a+Tree (accessed Sept. 20, 2012).

[4] National Park Service. National Capital Region. Park Units Administered. http://www.nps.gov/ncro/UnitsAdministered.htm (accessed Sept. 20, 2012).

[5] Ragsdale, N. Interview With James L. Sherald, Former Chief of Natural Resources and Science for the National Capital Region, National Park Service. Outlooks on Pest Management. 2010, 21(5), 219-222.

[6] National Park Service. Planning, Environment & Public Comment. National Mall Plan. http://parkplanning.nps.gov/projectHome.cfm?projectID=17190 (accessed Sept. 20, 2012).

[7] National Park Service. Planning, Environment & Public Comment. Reconstruct Turf and Soil on the National Mall. http://parkplanning.nps.gov/projectHome.cfm?projectID=28606 (accessed Sept. 20, 2012).