Citizen Foresters plant more than trees with the Urban Forest Project

As part of Grand Rapids' Urban Forest Project, Citizen Foresters plant trees and community knowledge as they try to increase the city's canopy. As the last of the leaves fall, Zinta Aistars reports on why it's important for urban neighborhoods to plant their own trees -- and tells you how you can get involved.
 Almost everything depreciates with age—except fine wine and trees.

“As a tree grows, it becomes an increasing asset to all that lives around it,” says Lee Mueller, program director of the Urban Forest Project in Grand Rapids. “There’s a rich body of research showing that trees provide more benefits as they grow larger. And when you compare cities with and cities without trees, you will also see significant differences in people’s health.”

Mueller is ready with a long list of benefits of trees. Simply having a view of trees from one’s window can help in healing, he says. Trees offer shade and cooling on a hot summer day. Trees add to property values. Trees help to prevent erosion. Trees absorb odors and pollutant gases, helping to clean the air by absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing it back into the air as oxygen. Trees save water, slowing down evaporation. Trees provide shelter for wildlife.

And that’s just the beginning of all that trees do for their surrounding environment.

Lee Mueller“There are cultural, social, economic, public health and environmental benefits to having a diverse canopy of trees over a city,” says Mueller. “That’s why the City of Grand Rapids and the Friends of Grand Rapids launched the Urban Forest Project in 2011, to meet the city’s goal of establishing a 40 percent tree canopy over Grand Rapids.”

With core funding from the Grand Rapids Community Foundation in spring 2014, Urban Forest Project gathered a small staff and a group of 20 volunteers as part of a new Citizen Forester program to get planting.

Vic Foerster“For me, it’s personal,” says Vic Foerster, consultant arborist working with Urban Forest Project. He teaches some of the classes for volunteers, called Citizen Foresters, then guides them in the proper planting of trees.

“I’m a long-time resident of this city,” he says. “I’ve raised my kids here. I can remember when the city parks were a place you’d rather avoid. Back in the ‘70s, ‘80s, the parks weren’t well-maintained the way they are today, and there was more crime. Today I walk in those same parks all the time, and it’s safe. I see lots of people playing disc golf, walking dogs, enjoying events.”

That, Foerster says, is just another benefit of maintaining a clean and beautiful city filled with a diversity of trees.
“Diversity of trees is important,” Foerster says. “I became involved with the Environmental Council here in the early 2000s, during the ash borer tree crisis. The city had some 7,000 ash trees back then, and the cost to remove the dead trees and to treat others was in the millions.”

With that still painfully in mind, Foerster teaches the Citizen Foresters that diversity of trees is important, so that if one type of tree becomes afflicted with diseases or pests, others survive.

“Our aim is to plant about 200,000 trees,” he says. “The American Forests Organization researched the optimum tree coverage needed for a city the size of Grand Rapids, and they determined 40 percent. We are somewhere between 24 and 34 percent now, depending on which method you use for mapping the trees.”

Urban Forest Project began a crowd-sourced tree-mapping project in 2012. Anyone can map their tree(s) on an online map and all are invited to do so.  

“The tree-mapping has been a rather slow process,” Foerster admits, “but we have to care for what we have while replacing what’s been lost.”

The Citizen Forestry program is a large part of that. Education and training for citizen volunteers is provided through Friends of Grand Rapids Parks. Citizen Foresters are taught about tree identification, planting and maintenance. They become advocates for trees in their own communities, passing on what they have learned and getting others involved in neighborhood-based tree projects.

Amanda St. Amore“I have oversight over about 200 trees,” says Amanda St. Amore, a Citizen Forester. “I’ve been active in my own neighborhood with tree planting, and I wanted to further my own knowledge about trees. I also supervise a group of other volunteers, and we all really appreciate this program, the support. It’s helpful to have the designation of Citizen Forester when you talk to others in your neighborhood about planting trees.”

To become a Citizen Forester, one must attend four classes (tree planting; tree maintenance and pruning; tree identification; the value of trees) and participate in at least two volunteer opportunities.

“By end of the year, we hope to have at least 25 Citizen Foresters,” says Mueller. “When people plant their own trees in their own neighborhoods, we’ve found those trees survive better than if the government plants them. They take better care of them, and it creates community bonding. Not only are they getting trees into the ground, but they are also creating a community spirit.”

Urban Forest Project wants to be needed less and less, Mueller says. The hope is that neighbors will inspire neighbors, and communities will plant and maintain more trees on private as well as public land.

“We also offer seed money in the form of mini-grants to anyone who wants to start an urban forest project of their own,” says Mueller. That includes, he says, starting an urban orchard, part of the Community Orchard Program to increase attention given to food security, food deserts, and edible landscapes. Urban Food Project also lends out tools and supplies for these projects.

“The large rock we still have to move is to get more of the public involved,” adds Foerster.
Contact Urban Forest Project to learn more and to get involved.
Zinta Aistars is creative director for Z Word, LLC, and correspondent for WMUK 102.1 FM Arts and More program. She lives on a farm in Hopkins.
Grand Rapids has set a goal of planting enough trees so that 40 percent of the city is covered by tree canopy. Friends of Grand Rapids Parks is organizing several tree plantings this fall, and the nonprofit plans to plant 109 trees this month. Click here for a list of scheduled tree plantings.

Photography by Adam Bird