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Sustainable Development e-News

Special Feature

In His Own Words
A Conversation With James R. Geiger
Director of Communications, Center for Urban Forest Research
Pacific Southwest Research Station,
USDA Forest Service, Davis

Maximizing the Nation's Benefits from Urban Forests

James R. Geiger

DAVIS, Calif.Forest issues in urban areas increasingly are at the forefront of discussions among Forest Service partners.  Those issues are particularly important in light of their implications for contributing in disparate ways to fulfilling the agency’s role in implementing the Energy Policy Act of 2005.  The management of urban and community forests helps the nation explore alternative sources of energy, even as it encourages cities, counties and states to maximize their benefits from such forests, to save energy, to reduce air pollution and improve air quality, to control storm water runoff and improve hydrology, to increase property values, and to contribute to reducing domestic violence.

In the following conversation, James Geiger, Director of Communications at the Center for Urban Forest Research at the USDA Forest Service, Davis, charts the current landscape for urban forestry and maps out the future role of governments and nonprofit agencies in maximizing the benefits of our forests to our cities. 

   Q: This center is valued—perhaps revered—for the                          essential knowledge and the practices in urban
                         forestry that it transfers to its key publics.  What,
                         specifically, is that knowledge? 

We want people to understand the magnitude and the extent of the benefits that trees provide to communities. Specifically, we want people to know that trees conserve energy, reduce air pollution and carbon dioxide, control storm water runoff, and increase property values. 

And what are some of the tools you use in knowledge transfer?

Such tools include ecoSmart Design Software, a Web-based software program designed to evaluate the tradeoffs of tree placement for energy, storm water, and fire.  Another is canopy assessments that allow communities to obtain accurate measures of the benefits of their current canopy and predict the benefits their canopy will have, given different planting and removal scenarios.

Others are air quality estimates, community tree guides, and our model, the Street Tree Resource Tool for Urban Forest Mangers (STRATUM).

And how is the transfer of practices in urban forestry accomplished?

In other words, how do we do what we do?  The first thing we need to understand is that the primary audience is the state urban forestry coordinators.  By distributing new technology to state coordinators, with the intent that they pass it along through their networks, we "automatically" tap into their network, and on it goes, because each of those clients has their own network. This is how we multiply the distribution of information.

We then have the secondary audiences of state foresters; the Washington Office and research staff; landscape professionals; and all the major nonprofit organizations, e.g., the National Arbor Day Foundation, the Sacramento Tree Foundation, and American Forests.

We’ve always had limited budgets, and so we try to find a way to get things to our audience that would be useful and yet inexpensive.  Initially, we had a hardcopy newsletter, but as our readership expanded it became too expensive to send that out.  We had research summaries that were printed in full color—everything became too expensive.  We went all-electronic.  Our Web site, of course, has all those documents.

If we have a special need, then we produce a publication ourselves and take it to a local printer for multiple copies.  We do that as we need them, but we don’t distribute them worldwide as hard copy.

The interesting thing is that as we develop our Web site, we receive more and more requests for information that we can easily refer to on our Web site.  So it’s become a good place to house things—it’s a kind of library of information with an easy access.

In addition to the newsletters, we have research summaries and news briefs, which are one- or two-page summaries of current things that happen between issues of our newsletter and we place them in our e-mail alert.  We also have on our Web site fact sheets, PowerPoint slides, speeches, briefings, and information on networking by which we encourage people to distribute our materials.

Another thing to remember about our distribution mechanism is that people have different learning styles.  Therefore, we communicate the same message in various formats.  So, our newsletters, research summaries and speeches all may say the same thing, but they are presented in a different way.  We try to get the same message out there in at least three different formats.

Other than using networks and others transfer mechanisms to maintain your relationships with your stakeholders, what other things do you engage in to relate to your audiences?

The noteworthy point here is that because our tech transfer is severely limited by lack of staff and money, we have concentrated our efforts and outreach on the highest level customers, namely, those customers that have the widest reaching networks like statewide coordinators and statewide or national NGOs. 

Forest Service scientists and researchers have been in the forefront of modeling the values and benefits of the urban forest.  What role does the center play in developing tools that communities use to quantify the ecosystem services their trees and forests provide?

Our STRATUM model, a part of the umbrella i-Tree model, allows people to take a small sample of their street trees and run it through the model and they can get an evaluation of the benefits of those street trees.  In combination with the i-Tree it can enable them to get an evaluation of their entire urban forest.  STRATUM provides simple quantitative dollar value of annual environmental and aesthetic benefits: energy conservation, air quality improvement, CO2 reduction, storm water control, and property value increase.

One of the challenges of urban forestry—at least from the Forest Service perspective—is managerial; that is, serious concerns by management about limited public knowledge about urban and community forestry.  How is this center specifically responding to that concern?

Quite frankly, I disagree with that assessment.  I believe that there is a greater percentage of the U.S. population that is knowledgeable about urban forests than about our national forestlands.  This is not to say that we don’t have a long way to go in terms of educating urban residents on the benefits of urban forests, but based on the vast number of community tree groups that are flourishing today, compared to 25 years ago, we have come a long way in getting the message to the public.  What our center has done in this regard is target these tree groups with our material and messages, to keep them and their constituents abreast of the latest developments in urban forest research.

We both know that urban and community forestry (U&CF) research has identified major issues—namely, statutory, regulatory, and administrative—that inhibit the effective transfer of technology to publics in northern California.  What, specifically, are some of those issues—and how does your center address them?

The major issue by far is lack of dollars.  This has seriously hindered the efficient and effective delivery of our Center’s tech transfer material.  This has led to limited commitment from the Washington Office, the Council of Western State Foresters, Forest Service Research, and State and Private Forestry.  And ultimately the net affect has been reduction in positions, namely the center’s technology transfer position, and resources to perform basic transfer of U&CF research technology.

Forest Service capacity is not commensurate with its expanded mission of contributing scientific resources and practices to natural resource management.  In the research arena, for example, there has been a decrease in the number of scientists, particularly during the last decade.  What are you doing to ameliorate the impact of such dwindling capacity?

The best way to characterize the situation is to understand that, more and more, we are losing the distinction between urban areas and rural forestland, and that this loss of “boundaries” is expected to increase in the future.  The Chief’s threats have an urban-rural dimension that has implications for our center, particularly the fire component in the wildlife-urban interface.  Therefore, to survive this reduction in the number of scientists, it is in our best interest to demonstrate the value that we add to a better understanding of the continuum of forests from urban to rural.  By positioning ourselves in this regard within the Pacific Southwest Research Station we will be better able to compete for research dollars that become available that are not typically for urban forest research.   And to demonstrate our commitment to repositioning we recently conducted a retreat to investigate future possibilities for our research and to refocus our thinking so that we are more available to the larger effort of PSW.  The major outcome of the retreat was a new research concept that could guide our Center’s effort in PSW over the next decade. 

This concept is best described as the “One Forest.”  That concept emphasizes the continuity of our forests, landscapes and other ecosystems across all lands, from the inner city forests of major metropolitan areas to the most remote parts of our national forests and wilderness areas.  The connection is demonstrated through associations within, and across, individual watersheds and expressed in the relationship each ecosystem has, whether rural or urban, to water, climate, invasive species, soils, wildlife, and the restorative power of fire. 


Cities were on their own in the past. But the future
holds more regional collaboration among government agencies and nonprofit organizations—regardless of city boundaries. There’s going to be partnering across community boundaries.


What’s your take on partnerships—particularly those between your center and the University of Washington and the University of California?

The first important thing to remember about these relationships is that, by design, all three of us independently research the urban forest and extend that research information to the public.  The change our Center has made to this traditional approach is to collaborate, or join forces with, each institution and particular urban forest researchers.  This collaboration enhances the ability of each researcher’s contribution and amplifies the benefit of the research result to the public – to use the old adage that two heads are better than one.   

In the case of the University of California, we are collaborating directly with the Department of Land and Water Resources at UC Davis on our hydrology and storm water research under the supervision of Dr. Qingfu Xiao.  Dr. Xiao brings hydrology expertise and our scientists the urban tree expertise that Dr. Xiao doesn’t have.  Together, at our center, we are pioneering ways to control storm water runoff, using urban trees. 

In the case of the University of Washington, we have a close working relationship with Dr. Kathy Wolf of the Center for Urban Horticulture, College of Forest Resources, and have shared research data and techniques on various projects, particularly parking lot research, that have been mutually beneficial to both of us and the public. 

The bottom line about research partnerships is that the more expertise or minds you can bring to a research project the better the results will be, and the better the benefits will be to our urban forests and the people of our communities.  Urban issues are complex and, therefore, require a multi-disciplinary approach.

About a year ago, the Forest Service announced a “Forests on the Edge” project, which seeks to improve our understanding of the implications of housing density projections for private forests.  In large measure, that project can be subsumed in one of the chief’s four threats: “loss of open spaces.”  How does that project resonate with your programs here?

The “Forests on the Edge” project complements the project undertaken by this center.

As we all know the loss of open spaces has all kinds of consequences.  What is not so well known, however, are the long-term effects of the loss of tree canopy and what will be the long term result of this action.  The flip side of the canopy-loss issue is the fact that in some areas communities are actually experiencing an increase in canopy.  This has related issues of infrastructure conflicts and how to mitigate them.   This is the kind of information/data that our center can provide.  For example, we have a number of research projects planned that will address these very issues.  Chief among them are:

  • One Forest and Watershed Health, which will develop, test, and demonstrate new tools (such as PDAs) that can be used by trained volunteers and managers to assess watershed and forest health in a variety of landscapes along the urban to rural gradient.
  • Ridge to Reef Gradient Assessment, which will be conducted in conjunction with the Forest project and will study the effects of urbanization on watershed degradation in Oakland
  • EcoSmart Landscapes in the wildlife-urban interface, which builds on our work at South Lake Tahoe This center will survey homeowners involved in interface fires to determine their attitudes related to such variables as vegetation amount, location, and size.

What role do tribal interests, values and concerns play in the urban forestry-technology genre?

In keeping with FS policy, we ensure close involvement of Tribal Governments in decisionmaking and in implementing research programs significant to reservation lands.  Therefore, in our research, it is quite possible that some of our projects could cross tribal lands and, if so, we involve them in the research process.

Finally, Jim, a two-part question.  First, how will you characterize the landscape for U&CF in the upcoming years?  Second, how does The Conservation Fund’s recognition in mid-May 2006 of the coastal forestland of Northern California as one of the top-10 places with potential to advance smart conservation relate to your characterization of that landscape?

What I see occurring over the next decade or so in the urban forest landscape is a resurgence in communities to create more canopy. Not only will global warming play a part in this, but also there is this pent-up energy to do something with all of the new research knowledge that has emerged over the past decade.  Our center’s research has provided the fundamental information on the value of trees that is driving this resurgence to create more canopy.  The form this will take will be a major planting of millions of trees in our communities across the country.  The new twist that we will see, that we haven’t seen much of before, is a broadening of partnerships that will expand efforts regionally and beyond the traditional city boundary.  We are beginning to recognize that this green infrastructure effort should not be confined to individual communities, but makes much more sense and is much more effective if delivered regionally.  Cities were on their own in the past.  But the future holds more regional collaboration among government agencies and nonprofit organizations—regardless of city boundaries.  Trees provide benefits for everyone, so the regional differences aren’t going to be important.  There’s going to be partnering across community boundaries.

An illustration of such regional cooperation in California is provided by Greenprint. The Sacramento Tree Foundation is working with elected officials of the Sacramento Council of Governments to double the region’s tree canopy over the next 40 years.

To the second part of your question, let me say that this resurgence to expand canopy will come in concert with a concerted effort to integrate green and gray infrastructure. This space, called Greenspace—planting areas along streets and in medians, vest-pocket parks, and community gardens—must be designed as connected, multifunctional systems and engineered into a city’s gray infrastructure. Nationwide, integrating green and gray infrastructure can save billions of dollars each year, make communities more attractive, and enhance quality of life for generations to come. However, to save money in the long-term, cities will have to spend money. More funds will be needed to protect critical habitats, create multi-functional parks, restore disturbed urban ecosystems, make more space for large trees along streets, build green parking lots, and better manage existing trees.

James R. Geiger is Director of Communications at the Center for Urban Forest Research, USDA Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Research Station, Davis, Calif.  He has been administering the center’s outreach, education, training, and public relations programs since August 2000.  Prior to joining the Forest Service, he spent 22 years at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.  From 1978 to 1993, he was the Urban Forestry Program Manager, and, from 1993 to 2000, the Landowner Assistance Program Manager.  Geiger came to California from Chicago, where he spent three years as a city forester.

Geiger received his undergraduate degree in forest management from the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point, and his master’s in organization development from the
University of San Francisco. 

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