The Grassroots of Our Urban Forests 

Three people hold signs saying “Urban trees... reduce stress, clean the water, and clean the air.

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 photos courtesy of Urban and Community Forest Program)

Andrew Avitt
Pacific Southwest Region
August 24, 2023

Editor’s note: The Forest Service recently announced $1 billion in available grant funding for the development of urban and community forests across the country. This support will enable communities to plant and maintain thriving urban forests. Check out the photos to see the type of work already being done. 

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.”  One person digging hole while other person holds a tree seedling to plant. Forest in background.

Urban Forestry Program Specialists Yassy Wilkins and Pauline Ordonez plant a Coast Live Oak seedling at Ernest Debs Regional Park in Los Angeles. The community reforestation event was hosted by Anahuacalmecac International University Preparatory of North America, the County’s only Indigenous TK-12 school, in partnership with CAL FIRE and the Forest Service. 

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. Booth with people at table and trees ready for planting to right.

City Plants, one of the Forest Service’s many nonprofit partners in the region, hosts a tree giveaway program for residents of Los Angeles. Their booth and trees stand ready for an event in El Pueblo de Los Angeles, the birthplace of the city. 

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 Title 1 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.-Affliated Pacific Islands of Palau, Guam, American Samoa, Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands.  One person touches bark of tree while another takes notes.

American Samoa Community College Forestry Department staff show students around a local tree nursery. With tree plantings and maintenance, education is just as important in sustaining our urban forests.  

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

“This year urban forestry is set to receive 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. Man in front of group of students with seedlings and tree.

Staff from American Samoa Community College Forestry Department show students the process of planting trees in their neighborhoods. 

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.Group of eight people in front of sign saying “Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Region Headquarters.

The Region 5 Urban and Community Forest  Program team at the Regional Office in Vallejo, California, July 2023. These are the people who help make urban forests happen. From left to right: Kat Williams, Alicia Sanchez Scott, Laura Wolf, Yassy Wilkins, Beverly Bulaon, Pauline Ordonez, Jennipher Himmelmann, and Miranda Hutten.   

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 project,” 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.” 

Fruits From Partners 

There’s a lot of work, research, planning, funding, and local support that goes into expanding the nation’s urban forests, but for the Forest Service, partners, and communities the trees are well worth the time and effort invested.   

Below are just a few of the urban forestry projects happening around California, Hawai’i and the Pacific Islands. 

There are $1 billion dollars in grants, supported by the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, now available to communities and organizations to support the nation’s urban forests. Find more information on the Forest Service’s Urban Committee Forestry Program website. 

Check out the photos to see the type of work already being done.