By Jad Daley

Volunteers from Bank of America gather before planting 200 seedlings in Detroit in May 2018.
Volunteers from Bank of America gather before planting 200 seedlings in Detroit in May 2018. Credit: Emily Barber.

WHEN I THINK ABOUT MY MOST sobering moments of 2018, many of them tie to our nation’s growing inequities defined by factors like income and race. From yawning income gaps to chilling examples of people being targeted on the basis of race, gender or sexual orientation, we live in a time defined by these disparities.

So, what can forests do to make America a more equitable and inclusive country? It turns out a whole lot.

Let’s start with the troubling disparities in tree cover distribution in our cities. I can still remember the first time I saw a tree canopy map and how it correlated with income in the Washington, D.C. area. The correlation is nearly perfect — affluent areas have lots of trees, and lower income areas mostly do not.

It turns out most cities in the U.S. have this same pattern, with race also serving as a predictor of poor tree canopy. In Sacramento, Calif., for example, the city’s tree canopy gaps align closely with its communities of color.

This matters when you come to understand just how essential tree canopy is to the safety, health and happiness of people in cities. Consider this:

  • Living in an area with low tree canopy can raise temperatures by 5-7 degrees during the day and up to 22 degrees at night, when health risks from heat stress are greatest for people living in homes without air conditioning.
  • Nationally, urban trees remove more than 17 million tons of air pollution each year and prevent 670,000 cases of acute respiratory symptoms.

These, among many other health and happiness benefits of urban trees, are why American Forests is launching a new campaign for “Tree Equity” to assure that all people have these benefits. Our tree planting and tree care work in cities are carefully targeted to places where underserved neighborhoods are also underserved with trees.

But, the challenges in lower income areas that don’t have adequate tree cover go beyond just health and happiness. Economic opportunities are scarce in many of these communities, and people do not always have access to the right educational credentials and personal networks to break into the booming economy across our cities and nation more broadly.

That’s why American Forests is building on our Tree Equity campaign with a new “Career Pathways” initiative to create a ladder of opportunity from lower income neighborhoods into the urban tree care industry.

Powered by a generous grant from The JPB Foundation, and matched by support from Bank of America and other corporate funders, we are leading a national initiative that links community-based tree planting programs into professional apprenticeships and other career opportunities with private businesses like The Davey Expert Tree Company.

This is a perfect match: our community tree planting partnerships are based in underserved neighborhoods where unemployment can run 3-4 times the national average. Davey, and other tree care companies, have thousands of jobs waiting to be filled in the currently tight labor market. By bringing these actors together, American Forests is creating a win-win for tree care companies and these new workers while assuring that the urban forest movement will have the skilled professionals in place to care for our urban trees.

But, it is not just urban areas where people are lacking economic opportunities. Many rural areas also have high unemployment and limited opportunities for new job growth. The powerful U.S. forest sector, the source of 2.4 million jobs already in areas like forestry and manufacturing, is a great way to turn trees into new jobs in rural areas.

Last fall’s American Forests magazine flashed this potential in action with our story on turning white oak trees into whiskey and wine barrels. This sustainably managed forest products business, led by our partner and industry leader American Stave Company, is an example of how rural regions can carefully leverage their forests in sustainable and locally appropriate economic development.

We know that American Forests can’t impact all of the forces driving inequity in America, but we see a moral imperative to do our part. The examples I have described are just a few ways we can do good for America’s forests and people in one fell swoop. Much more is to come. Thanks for your support to make it possible.