Photo: The Forest of Nisene Marks in Aptos, California, a former logging site that had been completely clear cut and has been the focus of reforestation efforts since the early 1960s.
Reforestation has become the new best friend of companies seeking to burnish their sustainability profiles, but follow-on studies are beginning to demonstrate that an effective tree planting initiative is more complicated than it may seem. The Tazo Tea Company seeks to avoid the pitfalls and make a strong impact, through a carefully targeted plan that could become a roadmap for others to follow.
Part of the allure of tree planting has to do with the raw numbers. Editors and reporters find it hard to resist stories with millions or even trillions in the headline. An ambitious reforestation initiative with big numbers has a good chance of grabbing the media spotlight.
In addition, it is clear that a properly managed tree planting program can make a significant contribution to carbon management on a global scale. Carbon capture and sequestration are the initial goals, and forest management can also be deployed for biofuel production.
The main problem is that large-scale reforestation (or afforestation) projects require large tracts of land. If plans move forward without considering the effects on local communities and existing habitats, the damage done can outweigh any good press from a corporate tree planting initiative.
The potential for beneficial community impact comes into sharper focus in the area of urban tree planting, where the scale at first appears small but the contours of a more holistic approach are more clearly defined.
Urban forestry has not been commanding the news cycle of late, as the climate crisis has often focused attention on reforestation on a grander scale. Nevertheless, the community benefits of urban trees are well known, and Tazo’s new Tree Corps initiative brings a strong element of racial justice into the fold.
“Due to a history of racist housing practices, predominantly BIPOC communities have 20 percent fewer trees on average than white communities,” Tazo explained. “That’s why we’re teaming up with American Forests to launch the Tazo Tree Corps, a paid tree planting workforce led by The Davey Tree Expert Company that’ll help reforest BIPOC communities in five major cities.”
Whether a corporate reforestation initiative is urban, rural, or somewhere in between, the main takeaway from the Tazo Tree Corps is to put the program in the hands of experts.
By teaming up with American Forests, Tazo draws on the experience of the organization’s director of career pathways, Sarah Lillie Anderson, who has a firm background in urban forestry programs that focus on racial justice and community engagement.
Anderson emphasizes that the foundational aspects of urban forestry are already well in hand. Using the available tools in holistic ways is the key.
“Effective tree programs use best practices to inform their work. Starting with the U.S. Forest Service’s Urban Forestry Toolkit and Community Assessment and Goal-Setting Tool, programs across the country can measure how well their programs are running and work towards continuously improving their programs,” Anderson said.
The Forest Service toolkit is a soup-to-nuts guidebook that covers local regulations, financial issues and training in addition to the actual planting and nurturing of trees.
American Forests has also developed an additional tool that calculates a “Tree Equity Score,” meaning the extent to which the existing trees in a community provide the benefits expected of a healthy tree canopy. Defining a need in numbers can provide effective leverage in gathering community support and lobbying local officials.
At first glance, forestry would seem an unlikely career path for city dwellers. However, as the urban tree movement grows and acquires more funding, so will opportunities for full time employment.
Anderson cites the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which calculates a 10 percent increase in job openings for entry level positions related to reforestation efforts over the next five or so years, many involving hands-on work in planting, trimming and pruning. Hence these jobs not only can provide a steady income, but also help strengthen communities.
Anderson observed, “Through countless work and volunteer experiences stewarding parks, trees, gardens, and other nature in cities, my belief that every person deserves to feel that who they are, where they live and what they contribute to society is valued was cemented.”
In addition to salaried positions, the opportunities for entrepreneurship in the tree services field are also growing.
Rather than relying on temporary volunteers or interns to plant new trees, the Tazo Tree Corps is specifically designed to provide for full time employment and career-building in its targeted cities. The project is launching this spring in Minneapolis, Detroit and the San Francisco Bay Area. Next year it will expand to Richmond, Virginia, and the borough of the Bronx in New York City.
The permanent workforce is vital to success, as urban trees are subject to severe stresses including water scarcity, poor soil, and air pollution in addition to other risks, such as collisions with vehicles and equipment.
“Communities need people to care for those trees, and our cities are experiencing a shortage in the urban forestry workforce,” said Anderson. “The Tazo Tree Corps is unique, because it, unlike any other job training program, is designed to launch its members into guaranteed full-time work to care for trees after the initial 2-week training period is completed.”
Retaining the new workforce is just as important - and just as challenging - as caring for trees after planting.
“When we meaningfully invest resources to create healthy and resilient green spaces, especially where they are needed most, we show our dedication to achieving tree equity. That’s why my career is centered on planting more trees in cities,” added Anderson.
In each of the targeted cities, the Tazo Tree Corps member groups are organized as support services that help trainees overcome barriers to full time work, including childcare and transportation.
“By launching the Tazo Tree Corps in five cities, Tazo Tea, Davey Tree Experts, and American Forests are dramatically expanding pathways to green job opportunities for BIPOC people,” Anderson explains. “This effort uniquely addresses economic, environmental and social justice in a way that can be market-sustained.”
American Forests is a legacy conservation organization launched in 1875, and the its leadership team indicates that there are some internal diversity hiring issues to resolve.
Nevertheless, in pivoting to the urban reforestation area, American Forests is also beginning to incorporate more diverse voices. Anderson describes how her own experiences led her to a career in urban forestry:
“The wonder and joy I felt as a girl playing in the woods near my home in New Jersey inspired my dream that everyone would experience the many benefits that trees provide. As I pursued this goal, I became aware that city trees are sparse in low-income communities, often home to People of Color, meaning the people living there are unjustly subjected to things like dirtier air and hotter days.”
Local business leaders have many reasons to support urban tree planting, over and above direct environmental benefits.
Anderson reeled off a laundry list of studies demonstrating that urban trees are linked to improved outcomes for community health, social cohesion, and even academic performance.
“Shoppers in business districts with robust tree canopy will spend 9 to 12 percent more for products, travel farther to these districts and spend more time there,” she noted.
Corporate leaders who seek to engage in the reforestation movement would do well to take a page from Tazo’s playbook and embrace a model that revolves around people as well as trees.
Cover image credit: Leon Kaye
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.