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Green News - Feature Article



Miranda Hutten, Urban and Community Forestry Program Manager in the Pacific Southwest Region, shows her support for urban trees with Miru Osuga and Tien Wieber at the California State Fair.  (USDA Forest Service photo) 

The Grassroots of our Urban Forests
Andrew Avitt
Pacific Southwest Region
December 13, 2023

For a moment, imagine your neighborhood… your big city downtown or smalltown main street. The trees, vegetation and green spaces are likely a part of these pictures. But they probably aren't the focus.

“It’s actually pretty common,” said Pauline Ordonez, Urban and Community Forestry Program Specialist with the Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Region. “People tend to not realize the trees and all of the benefits that they provide until they are gone.”

Urban forests have the power to cool environments, boost economies and are shown to be an important part of human wellness.

The Forest Service works with states, tribes, towns, communities, private landowners, community garden organizers, school campuses, and nongovernmental organizations not just to keep these green spaces intact but to expand them, providing technical assistance, research, best practices and funding assistance.

There are a variety of stakeholders, said Ordonez. “Anyone who cares about trees, who gives thought to the value of trees, to urban forests, to green spaces is a steward.”

The Forest Service assists these different stewards, when considering what trees to plant, where and how to take care of them. That’s where the agency and partner organizations can provide the big picture data.

Providing Data to Provide Shade
One of those tools — the urban tree canopy viewer — can help inform how organizations plan their urban forestry projects. These open-source, interactive maps of Hawai'i and California were developed by the Forest Service and state urban forestry programs with data from the census and national weather service.

“It can tell us where our trees are and the percentage of the canopy in certain areas. We can then overlay that with different data points: socioeconomic, average income, heat index, proximity to schools. So, it’s very helpful for our partners to be able to use these tools, to inform their plans to help communities,” said Ordonez.

Growing the Urban Forestry Network
Though the Forest Service is not directly responsible for urban forests, it’s the only federal agency that has a dedicated urban forestry program. The agency’s Pacific Southwest Region supports urban forestry work with many different groups — Tribes and Indigenous communities, states, cities, educational institutions, neighborhoods and nonprofits across California and Hawai'i. This even includes the U.S.-Affiliated Pacific Islands of Palau, Guam, American Samoa, Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands.

Ordonez and the rest of the Urban and Community Forestry team oversee outreach to current and future grantees.

“This year urban forestry is set to receive an unprecedented amount of funding through the Inflation Reduction Act. And that means for our partners, there has never been a better opportunity to get funding for projects that were once restricted by tight budgets,” said Ordonez.

Partners are essential to planning and executing projects in communities. They also assist the Forest Service with a structure to organize and award grants.

“We have this huge network of organizations that we work with, and each of those organizations has their own localized network closer to the communities where the work is being done. We really rely on our partners to get the word out about some of our funding opportunities, to expand urban forestry work,” said Ordonez.

Partners like California ReLeaf are important to disseminating information across the urban forestry network.

Cindy Blain, executive director with California ReLeaf said she has seen how smaller nonprofit organizations are stronger and more effective when they band together.

“California ReLeaf is what we call an umbrella organization,” said Blain. “When we first started, there were about 10 urban forestry organizations in our network, now there are about 75 to 100 across California.”

The organizations and types of urban forestry they support vary, from small and all-volunteer run, to bigger nonprofits of 50 people.

“Most of these organizations are dealing with similar issues,” said Blaine, “So we come together to share information, research, tips, ideas, and encouragement.”

When it comes to applying for grants California ReLeaf can help smaller organizations apply and can also offer their own grants. “We also provide pass-through grants, which we consider “teaching grants.” California ReLeaf seeks large grants from the Forest Service or CAL FIRE, and then offers sub-grants along with additional education and support to small nonprofit organizations.  In effect, we’re teaching them how to apply for large governmental grants by thoughtfully designing better projects as well as how to manage the various reporting requirements. This allows more organizations access to funding and creates more capacity to manage successful tree planting projects,” said Blain. “The program is called Urban & Community Forests: and urban forests really need the local communities to consistently care for them -- long after the tree planting event.”

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