Each month in our Nature Sacred blog we share insight from leaders in our communities who are advancing what it means to have sacred, open green spaces in our cities. This month we spoke with Trees Forever Founding President Shannon Ramsay about urban forestry engagement possibilities in Iowa and across the United States.
For 25 years and counting, Trees Forever has helped thousands of community volunteers, civic leaders, government officials and landowners with local tree-planting projects and initiatives. The organization took its first step when Shannon Ramsay recognized a need. That combined with her ability as an entrepreneur to gather resources and citizen volunteers to plant trees in the Midwest.
Today, Trees Forever works with over 7000 volunteers annually and is a noteworthy model of independent civic initiatives. The organization is a major voice in Midwest local and state government, local corporations, and civic community partnerships. Trees Forever simultaneously supports those who want to take urban forestry into the political arena, those who participate in community plantings, and like-minded urban forestry groups who want to increase their capacity for change.
Trees Forever uses compelling messaging, strategic fund raising, and executive volunteerism to garner support for urban forestry and create unexpected alliances among community partners. In the early stages of their grassroots effort, Trees Forever partnered with college and high school student groups, led tree planting in communities, and ran public awareness campaigns. The organization pays attention to changes in local interest and national movements. For example, invasive species removal projects tend to draw in many volunteers and they use this interactive experience to draw in more potential partners. A recent program at the Des Moines zoo drew in many volunteers because it involved collecting invasive honeysuckle and feeding it to the grateful giraffes! Another Trees Forever initiative is focused on the decrease in pollinator populations, including bees, butterflies, moths and birds, who feed on their larvae. Such habitat projects can bridge rural farmland, urban communities and small towns. Keeping their initiatives relevant and engaging is one key to their sustainability as an organization.
When asked what advice Shannon would give to other urban forestry groups, she emphasized the necessity of empowering people to act. How can your organization be the spark to ignite resources already at hand in your community? As an example, Trees Forever leverages not only the on-the-ground tree planting abilities of residents, but the funding capacity available through public utility sponsors and high profile projects. Increasing tree canopy cover in urban areas drastically reduces energy needs. A dedicated user and supporter of Forest Service research, Ramsay serves on the National Forest Research Council. With help from the Forest Service, Trees Forever tracks its tree planting and benefits and has shown that street trees alone in Cedar Rapids, Iowa are saving annually $1.5 million in energy benefits. Strategically tracking this data and knowing how to share this story is likely a large player in their partnership with local urban utility departments. Trees Forever is currently in the process of mapping their contribution to green space in Iowa to create a digitally visual account of their work across Iowa, Illinois and nationwide.
Trees Forever’s 25 year experience in community organizing has led to larger scale capacity building work; providing resources and guides to forestry groups and executive leaders across the country. Spreading the Canopy is a current project to engage and inform community leaders on the value of trees and green space to improve and enhance mental and physical health. But these leaders aren’t from the typical urban forestry or farming community, they are from diverse sectors of public health, the insurance industry, private business (such as local grocers), policy makers, and the medical and wellness community. As a result of bringing these national leaders together, Trees Forever recently awarded grants to Friends of Trees (Portland, Oregon), The Greening of Detroit, Keep Indianapolis Beautiful and the Sacramento Tree Foundation to carry on the public health message of the value of trees and green space in our cities.
A key insight to take from Trees Forever’s success in community engagement and capacity building is to foster partnerships among leaders and funders already invested in your community. Who else is doing work like yours? What government and NGO’s have similar desired outcomes even if they aren’t your typical partners? These questions and answers are similar to Nature Sacred’s mission to engage community in designing and maintaining their green spaces in ways that are relevant to them. Community leaders, who we call Firesouls, can use these strategies to elevate the messages for building and sustaining open, sacred green space.