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Urban Forestry in America Today
Forest Service Associate Chief Sally Collins
Partners in Community Forestry, National Conference
Baltimore, MD—November 14, 2007


It is a pleasure to be here. I want to add my welcome to all of you and thank you for coming. I am deeply honored to have been given the opportunity to express my thoughts on urban forestry in America today and the Forest Service’s role in it.


Incredible Resource for Conservation
Let me start by stating the obvious to all of us here: Urban forests yield enormous benefits. As that realization has spread, more and more people have been inspired to conserve that resource and build on it for the future. In this way, the urban forestry movement has been quietly gaining ground in America. Eighty percent of our population now lives in urban areas, and cities support a critical portion of our nation’s tree canopy. At the Forest Service, we know that our urban forests are critical for the future of conservation. Let me illustrate that by telling a story.


Like most organizations, the Forest Service has a team of top executives who periodically meet to discuss national policy direction. Our Executive Leadership Team usually meets in Washington, DC; but about two years ago, we decided to meet instead right here in Baltimore. We wanted to get out and see some of what we’re doing on the ground. As you well know, in Baltimore we have some well-established programs in urban forestry and urban forestry research together with partners here in town. And we have a number of long-term very strong partnerships here.


So we came to Baltimore, and we visited some neighborhoods with no trees and others with pocket parks, where we saw a huge difference. Dumping was prevalent where there were no trees, and it was much less or altogether absent where there were green spaces. We talked to people who lived there, to neighborhood leaders who fought to save existing trees and plant new ones. Having more trees also meant less crime to them, as Dr. Frances Kuo’s research has shown. But maybe just as important, trees in an urban environment inspired pride in the people who lived there. Could this help us address persistent urban poverty?


Our Executive Leadership Team was deeply impressed by what we saw, and that experience helped lead us to heighten our focus on urban landscapes. In revising our Strategic Plan for the Forest Service, we have made it a national goal to engage urban America in conservation. This is all part of a growing national recognition that our urban forests are an incredible natural resource. More and more people have come to realize how many essential services flow from urban forests to local communities and to society in general. In case study after case study, you can see the value of urban forests and the importance of urban communities for the future of conservation. If we truly want to care for the land and serve people, there is no better place to start.


Long-Term Challenges
There is also no better time. The challenges facing conservation today are daunting:

  • One challenge is climate change. History will judge the leaders of our age by how well we address this challenge. This thing we know: Climates are changing on a global scale, and the effects could include severe and abrupt ecological change. The capacity of ecosystems to deliver key services could be compromised. It could affect freshwater resources, food supplies, biodiversity, and more. The social and economic costs could be enormous.

  • Another challenge is the loss of ecosystem services, which are in decline worldwide. These are basic services that we get from nature, like the delivery of food and fresh water, wood and medicine, but also services like pollination or flood regulation or outdoor recreation. In 2005, the United Nation’s Millennium Ecosystem Assessment found that 60 percent of the world’s ecosystem services are in decline or being used unsustainably. That includes up to 25 percent of global fresh water supplies. In the same way that we invest in the built infrastructure we depend on, like roads and bridges, we need to invest in the national forests we depend on.

  • These two challenges are huge. They will take generations of deliberate action to overcome. Today’s children—and theirs—will need to be able and willing to meet the challenges. For that, they will need a full understanding of why forests, including urban forests, are so valuable and why it is important to manage them well. For most Americans, urban areas will be critical in reestablishing a connection to nature so they come to care about conservation, today and in the future.


Partnership Efforts
You are the ones who are finding ways to address these challenges, and I commend you for it. I am proud that the Forest Service is involved with you. For example, we have a tremendous track record of urban forest research. Again, most of this has been accomplished with community, NGO, and university partners, partners like the Alliance for Community Trees. Here are just a few examples:

  • the program for assessing street trees and calculating the dollar value of all the benefits neighborhoods get from them;

  • the models for analyzing impervious surface cover to better manage stormwater runoff;

  • the methodology for mapping the wildland/urban interface and determining the effects of fire on urban areas;

  • studies on the implications of neighborhood trees for human health and social well-being;

  • the quantification of the value of municipal parks in reducing stormwater runoff, removing air pollution, and raising property values.


Our joint efforts have paid off. The urban forestry movement has grown by leaps and bounds in just 5 years. The number of communities that have adopted forest-related ordinances or policies is now more than 7,000. The volunteer service hours in our Urban and Community Forestry Program alone now total almost 3 million hours per year, a figure several times higher than just 5 years ago. In good part due to our joint efforts, mayors around the country are now competing with each other to have the biggest tree-planting program, the greenest reputation, the healthiest environment for their citizens.


Conservation Leadership
In sum, we have all come a long, long way in the last 10 to 20 years. Urban forest research has pioneered much of the perspective that we now call ecosystem services. Urban areas, through your grassroots efforts, have led the way in protecting and expanding green spaces … in helping people learn to value natural systems … and in promoting initiatives to counter the effects of climate change. And urban forestry is leading the way, hands down, in conservation education. All of this speaks volumes for conservation leadership.


I commend those of you gathered here for taking the lead. I promise that the Forest Service will continue to be there by your side. We have much to gain and much to learn from working together toward these goals. I thank you for all you do.



US Forest Service
Last modified March 29, 2013

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