Answers contributed by:
- Alder Forrester, Field Specialist, AmeriCorps St. Louis
- Nick Ciaramitaro, Program Director, AmeriCorps St. Louis
- Jane Kersch, Outreach Manager, AmeriCorps St. Louis
Portions edited for length and clarity by Hannah Traverse, Director of Communications, The Corps Network
Many of us probably go about our day-to-day lives without thinking much about the trees that line our streets and sidewalks. In communities that lack trees, however, this absence of greenery can be deeply problematic. Urban trees provide shade and wildlife habitat, filter our air, control stormwater runoff, and so much more.
As our country becomes increasingly urbanized – an estimated 81% of Americans live in urban areas – it’s more important than ever that we support healthy tree canopies in cities. It’s particularly critical that we recognize and address inequities in tree cover. In more than 90% of U.S. communities, low-income neighborhoods have less tree coverage that wealthier areas. In 67% of communities, neighborhoods where the majority of residents are persons of color have less tree cover than white neighborhoods, even after accounting for income.
Treesilience is a national initiative working to build healthy tree canopies and promote urban forestry workforce development in communities where trees may be lacking or dying. We talked with AmeriCorps St. Louis about the work they’re doing with Treesilience to help bring tree equity and job training to their city.
Can you share a bit more about the challenges Treesilience aims to address? What specifically are some of the issues locally in the St. Louis region?
The biggest challenge Treesilience aims to address is improving community health, because healthy trees mean healthy people. Healthy trees can mean lower energy bills, cooler temperatures, cleaner air and water, less storm flooding, and an overall better quality of life.
There are three main factors influencing the health of a community’s tree canopy: tree maintenance, tree replacement, and workforce development. In other words, we need to ensure we have healthy trees that stay healthy, and we need the people power with specialized knowledge to get it done.
All urban spaces, and St Louis is no exception, tend to suffer from the heat island effect. During the summer, city centers made of concrete and asphalt trap heat, maintaining high temperatures that pose a serious health hazard. In contrast, rural and even suburban areas see temperatures well below those recorded in dense urban centers. One of the best ways to prevent the heat island effect is to simply have trees, more trees, and preferably trees that are cared for so they can grow to provide lots of shade.
All communities deserve to benefit from trees, however a large part of Treesilence involves focusing on areas of most critical need. St Louis is ranked in the top 10 most racially inequitable cities in the United States. The historic practice of racist redlining forced many Black St. Louisans into areas that have fewer trees or poorly maintained trees. The goal for this project is to help alleviate some of that disparity.
Most of the street trees in disinvested neighborhoods are ash trees. All our ash trees are under attack by the emerald ash borer, an exotic insect that kills these trees. As part of this initiative, AmeriCorps St. Louis helped take down old trees that were not providing the benefits a healthier tree would. With dying branches, these trees also posed a safety hazard to people and property. We replaced unhealthy trees with a new variety of native trees grown by Forest ReLeaf of Missouri, a nonprofit whose mission is to enrich communities by growing and planting trees through the power of people and partnerships.
Can you provide a brief overview of how ACSTL got involved with Treesilience? When did you get involved and what exactly is your organization’s role in this initiative?
Treesilience is administered nationally by The Nature Conservancy with generous support from the USDA Forest Service, in collaboration with strategic partner Davey Tree Expert Company. Other local partners include Beyond Housing, the City of St. Louis Forestry Division, Forest ReLeaf of Missouri, and STL Youth Jobs. Treesilience efforts in St. Louis initially started back in 2021, and AmeriCorps St. Louis assisted on the project in the spring of 2023. Our contributions included felling hazardous ash trees at a variety of city parks.
AmeriCorps St. Louis was invited to participate in Treesilience thanks to previous service projects in the area that involved tree felling and invasive species removal.
What kinds of projects have Corpsmembers been doing? What are they able to bring to this program/partnership?
AmeriCorps St. Louis places a heavy emphasis on learning chainsaw operations and tree felling. Early in the service term, Corpsmembers are trained in safe chainsaw operation and tree felling techniques; they practice these skills in state parks and conservation areas in Missouri and Illinois. Through the Treesilience project, Corpsmembers take the skills they’ve spent months practicing and put them to the test in a different setting.
Under our normal operations, Corpsmembers fell trees in areas that don’t have a lot else around them besides plants and other trees. Coming into an urban environment there’s a lot more hazards to mitigate: powerlines, fences, cars, playgrounds, etc. With the experience they gained at the beginning of the term, Corpsmembers are easily able to identify the safest paths for trees and are able to direct them safely down without damage to the surrounding areas.
How is this work funded?
AmeriCorps St. Louis’ services are funded through a partnership with Forest ReLeaf of Missouri and Davey Tree Expert Company, with a Missouri Department of Conservation Community Forestry Cost Share grant.
Why is a healthy tree canopy important to urban areas?
We’ve mentioned that trees play a very important part in heat regulation in the city. Urban trees also play an important role in stormwater management and air filtration. In July of 2022, St. Louis saw historic flooding, and such events are only predicted to worsen as climate change goes unmitigated. With more trees, and especially more mature trees, more stormwater runoff can be diverted from our sewer systems and lessen or prevent flooding. Trees not only catch stormwater runoff, but they also filter and remove contaminants from our water systems.
There is a long list of health benefits that trees provide to people. In addition to filtering water, trees also filter the air. Psychologically, greenspaces provide for our wellbeing, making us happier and healthier just through proximity.
“One of my favorite projects so far this year was the Forest ReLeaf of Missouri/Treesilience project. It combined all of my favorite project elements: felling, a good team, community impact, and exposure to new people and places.
I enjoyed serving in the parks there enough that I’ve been back in my off time to explore by bike and look at our handiwork. I loved how invested the partners were in the project, and what direct community impact we had. I enjoyed talking to folks living in the area around each park, explaining to them the effect of ash borers and what is being done to bring in more shade and green space to North City. I was impressed by how many people already knew about the invasive beetles and ash trees!
I got to have fun every day practicing new cuts and learning from my team. This is exactly the kind of project I had been hoping for when I joined AmeriCorps, and it made me excited to look for similar opportunities in the future.”
How do you see this work with Treesilience fitting in with ACSTL’s mission or goals?
Our motto is See the Need, Meet the Need. Our mission is to serve the least served, last served, and never served. As mentioned before, St Louis experiences some of the worst racial disparity in the country. Getting involved in Treesilience for us means that we get the chance to get in touch with our geographical community and improve the lives of our neighbors (and ourselves).
It also aligns with our efforts to create strong leaders and public servants who are aware of issues impacting their communities; work with community partners to tackle large issues; and overall create a healthier, more sustainable environment for people and the planet.
What kind of skills do Corpsmembers learn or practice through this collaboration?
Corpsmembers learn about urban ecology, the importance of trees in the city, and they’re getting familiar with more parts of our city. Corpsmembers get to practice more advanced tree felling techniques and demonstrate their new proficiency in chainsaw work.
This is work that other Corps might be able to get involved with, too?
There is a growing movement of Corps getting more involved in urban conservation! Many Corps programs are already involved in this work, like the Student Conservation Association’s Urban Green initiative programs, Conservation Corps of Long Beach, and PowerCorpsPHL, to name a few.
Corps programs that provide Corpsmembers with chainsaw training can apply skills that are typically used in national forests, state parks, and rural conservation areas to urban areas. This presents opportunities for new partnerships, and new communities to be served!