Students spend their summer protecting America’s urban trees

Richard Howard
© Richard Howard

Urban Forests serve as a critical component of a city’s natural infrastructure and are essential to healthy communities.

By Bill Toomey, Director, Forest Health Protection, The Nature Conservancy

This summer, 20 students are spending eight weeks conserving nature in hands-on environmental internships — in two of America’s most urban cities. These students are working with The Nature Conservancy’s Healthy Trees, Healthy Cities initiative in New York City and Philadelphia, helping to monitor and protect the health of these cities' urban trees and forests.

The Healthy Trees, Healthy Cities initiative protects the health of our nation’s trees, forests, and communities by engaging people — like the college students working with the program this summer — in the planting and care of urban trees and forests.

In New York City, students are working in Queens and the Bronx, collecting data on the health of the city’s trees as part of the NYC Trees Count! Inventory, as well as collecting data in support of a U.S. Forest Service and NYC Parks study of trees directly affected by Superstorm Sandy. With nearly 20,000 public trees destroyed in Sandy, the NYC students are monitoring the City’s remaining trees to determine the full impact of the storm and survey trees for signs of possible decline or infestation by non-native insects or disease. In Philadelphia, students are working to survey the health of the city’s street trees and are supporting work of the Philadelphia Parks Department, the US Forest Service and the Healthy Trees, Healthy Cities program.

Rich Hallett of the US Forest Service gives a daily briefing to Healthy Trees, Healthy Cities interns before monitoring street trees in Queens, NY, including trees impacted by Superstorm Sandy.© Rich Hallett of the US Forest Service gives a daily briefing to Healthy Trees, Healthy Cities interns before monitoring street trees in Queens, NY, including trees impacted by Superstorm Sandy.

Along with environmental science skills like tree identification, tree health monitoring, early tree pest detection and data collection, these students are learning that trees are not just nice things to have; they are indispensable to our individual and community health and well-being.

As our summer intern Esteban Arenas-Pino shared, “My experience this summer has taught me how urban trees play such a vital role in supporting healthy communities for all. I’ve always known what healthy forests can do for the environment, but it is clear that the trees lining city streets and filling parks are just as important. Planting and caring for city trees is one of the best things we can do to support a healthy future for our cities.”

Urban forests serve as a critical component of a city’s natural infrastructure and are essential to healthy communities. They represent a huge investment by cities around the country consisting of approximately 130 million acres of urban forest which are valued at $4.8 billion. The trees along streets and in our parks and backyards produce oxygen, purify air and drinking water, harbor wildlife, help keep our cities cool and provide many social, economic, and health benefits to people.

HTHC interns are using a variety of tools to monitor the health of urban trees impacted by Superstorm Sandy. Here, two interns measure the height of a maple tree in Queens that was flooded in the storm.© HTHC interns are using a variety of tools to monitor the health of urban trees impacted by Superstorm Sandy. Here, two interns measure the height of a maple tree in Queens that was flooded in the storm.

Many of these Healthy Trees, Healthy Cities interns are alumni of The Nature Conservancy’s Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future (LEAF) program. With generous support from Lowe’s, the LEAF program, now in its 21st year, provides high school students with paid summer internships working in the field in conservation and environmental science, giving them first-hand experience with conservation and why it matters to urban areas. The goal of the LEAF program is to expose urban youth to nature and conservation careers at a young age to nurture a passion for the environment which will stick with them both personally and professionally for the rest of their lives. Alumni of the LEAF program volunteer for environmental causes and pursue degrees and careers in the environmental field at rates much higher than the national average.

As Brigitte Griswold, my colleague, and Director of The Nature Conservancy’s Youth Programs, has written, “It’s our job — as conservationists who care about our children’s success and the future of the planet — to prepare them with knowledge, experience and connections to meet the challenges that will define their generation.”

HTHC interns working with Rich Hallett of the US Forest Service to determine the affects of Superstorm Sandy on street trees in Queens.© HTHC interns working with Rich Hallett of the US Forest Service to determine the affects of Superstorm Sandy on street trees in Queens.

I couldn’t agree more. In New York City and Philadelphia this summer, our Healthy Trees, Healthy Cities interns are gaining the environmental science and conservation experience to help them meet those challenges, and are helping to ensure that our urban forests will continue to provide essential benefits to urban communities well into the future. Over the next year we are planning to expand this work to other cities in the North American Resilient Cities network by providing opportunities for even more talented urban youth and giving them the experience they need to become the next generation of conservation leaders.

Tags: Cities | College Life | Conservation | New York City | Philadelphia | Trees

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