By Sarah L. Anderson
WHEN I WAS 8 YEARS OLD, I had the formative experience familiar to so many in this country — a summer at camp. My version of camp was rich with songs, sports and, best of all, exploring the pine barren forests of southern New Jersey.
Camp was drastically different from the environment at my school, where racist taunts fol- lowed me from the classroom to the playground to the bus ride home. The woods at camp were a safe haven, where I felt a freedom that didn’t exist at school. I learned about prescribed burns, fires set on purpose to regulate the forest ecosystem. Camp counselors taught me how to practice the principles of Leave No Trace. I observed how tree roots helped to stabilize sandy New Jersey soils that filtered drinking water for millions.
The forests made me feel at peace. From then on, I was determined to make sure everybody could experience the benefits of trees.
The need to do so was driven home for me again in college, when I worked for an urban summer recreation program designed to deliver lunches to children who may otherwise not have access to a healthy meal. Located in a city park, the program was free and easy for kids to walk to, but the park itself felt neglected. Drug vials, needles and used condoms littered the ground, making it unsafe for play.
Millions of people in cities across the country face a similar challenge — limited access to clean and healthy natural green spaces. That’s because, in most cities, there’s far more tree cover in high-income neighborhoods than low-income neighborhoods. This inequity originates from decades of disinvestment and discriminatory planning practices, both of which result in an inequitable distribution of green spaces.
I was determined to address this inequity during my summer job in college. But my unbridled enthusiasm for better quality nature earned me scoffs and eye-rolls from colleagues. My optimism did not match the reality of the community, which was that residents were jaded by outsiders coming in with shiny new ideas of how to improve their community, only to have those plans and investments be short-lived and unsustainable. It became clear throughout the summer that the only things I could do were to consistently show up, be present and be willing to do what was needed to improve the conditions in the park at a pace welcome by locals.
A seed of hope and optimism was planted that winter, when I was asked to be the summer recreation program supervisor. The next few summers, we regularly held park clean-ups, followed Leave No Trace principles and even named the geese that swam in the park’s pond. We had a leadership program for the 12- through 14-year-olds to model park steward- ship. I am hopeful those summers helped prepare the kids to become nature advocates.
My big take-away from that experience is that every person deserves to feel that who they are, where they live and what they contribute to society is valued. When we meaningfully invest resources to create healthy and resilient green spaces, especially where they are needed most, we show our dedication to achieving Tree Equity.
And, that’s why my career is centered around planting more trees in cities.
Unfortunately, across the country, there are not enough people to plant and care for city trees. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that urban forestry will see a 10 percent increase in job openings for entry-level positions over the next decade. Many of those jobs will be planting, trimming and pruning trees — where the median annual wage is $40,510. Nearly 25 percent of tree trimmers and pruners are self-employed, so this type of opportunity can set the stage for improved economic mobility, resulting in a better quality of life for those who need it most.
American Forests launched the Tree Equity: Career Pathways Initiative in 2018 to address this shortage and, simultaneously, ensure that all people benefit from trees. The focus of the initiative is training people in low-income urban neighborhoods (where there are fewer jobs and trees) and placing them in urban forestry jobs.
Climate change-related threats to urban trees — such as floods and other extreme weather events, pests, invasive species and development — are set to exacerbate this inequity. So, providing jobseekers the skills and guidance needed to get urban forestry positions can help marginalized communities adapt to climate change.
More trees in these communities, especially if they are well-cared for trees, also means lower utility bills, given that trees keep houses 10 degrees cooler in the summer. In the winter, they keep buildings warm by blocking strong winds.
And more trees means fewer heat-related illnesses. That’s significant, given that, under the status quo, a 10-fold increase in heat-related deaths is expected by 2050.
A TRIPLE-BOTTOM-LINE SOLUTION
At the heart of the American Forests initiative is a new guide that spells out 12 best practices for creating entry-level urban forestry career pathways programs that meet regional urban forestry needs. Created with input from the International Society of Arboriculture and the Tree Care Industry Association, the Career Pathways Action Guide will continually be updated with the latest research, case studies and resources to support local action. This one-stop shop for helping build the urban forestry workforce of tomorrow includes such things as guidance for building partnerships to insights on advocating for inclusivity. It can be downloaded at VibrantCitiesLab.com.
Examples of the guide in action can be found in some of the cities where American Forests works. In Chicago, we support the Forestry Trainee Program, run by a regional land trust called Openlands, led by certified arborists and connected to a network of industry professionals in the city.
Through the eight-month program, people who have little to no experience in arboriculture or forestry become adept in basic urban forestry techniques, develop leadership skills and make connections to various partners in the region.
Trainees’ confidence builds over the longer-than- average length of the program through their evolution into volunteer leaders.
For the trainees, the program has helped them focus not only on current employment goals, but also future career goals.
“From the beginning, I have felt that my future is being kept in mind with all of the exposure to training [and] industry professionals,” trainee Shayne Hale says. “Apart from working for [Openlands], I would hope to get a job with a tree care company, preferably in Chicago, and eventually learn how to become a climbing arborist or certified arborist.”
Hale is now employed full-time in the tree industry, thanks to the program.
Katie Fleming, Openlands’ forestry program manager who helped develop and now implements the program, says the program is structured to allow trainees a safe environment in which to learn and grow.
“Our trainees complete classroom and field-based lessons in urban forestry, building skills in watering, weeding, mulching, pruning and inventorying thousands of trees a year,” Fleming says. “It’s important that trainees get to work in an environment that is inclusive and safe, where mistakes are allowed, and reflection is encouraged. Trainees who complete the program earn their certification as volunteer TreeKeepers and are given the confidence and experience to enter an urban forestry career.”
Approximately two dozen other nonprofit organizations across the country also run programs that equip participants with the knowledge and skillsets to thrive in entry-level urban forestry jobs. The Greening Youth Foundation in Atlanta and the Delaware Center for Horticulture in Wilmington, Del., for example, have prioritized serving those who wouldn’t necessarily consider urban forestry careers, given their backgrounds and barriers to employment.
Our Tree Equity: Career Pathways Initiative helps bring to light that the solution we’ve been looking for has been here all along: investing in our people and our urban green space. That’s the key to creating truly resilient forests and communities and ensuring all people receive the benefits that trees provide.
Sarah L. Anderson writes from Washington, D.C. and is American Forests’ senior manager of Tree Equity.