Citizen Foresters

citizen foresters

Citizen foresters are part of a worldwide movement to restore a healthy green environment—starting with the trees right where we live.

Like Aldo Leopold, we believe we are all citizens of the living world, and citizenship in this sense has nothing to do with visas or national boundaries. As Leopold wrote: "The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land" and "changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it."

A TreeKeeper from Chicago and a tree-loving journalist from New York, we have gathered these stories in the hope they will inspire others to get involved, too.  As TreeKeeper Karen told us when we visited with her on Chicago's South Side: "You start today, you work with others, and you never give up. That's why it helps to have gardens and trees. Because they persist."

We produced these videos in 2013–16 as part of a media project called The Truth About Trees, which was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation. We are grateful for the support and for the generosity of those who shared their stories.

"Planting trees at Zaleski Forest Project, Vinton County, Ohio. Apr, 1936" was taken by photographer Theodor Jung for the United States Resettlement Administration.
Matt Schwartz is an environmental horticulturist who works with EarthCorps on restoration projects around Puget Sound—including Hylebos Creek, south of Seattle, where we caught up with a group removing invasive ivy. Restoration work is "letting nature have a break," he told us, "so it can get back to its rhythm and its balance."
Francis Omungo came to EarthCorps from conservation work in Kenya. We talked with him during a workday in Seattle's Discovery Park. "With the effort we are putting across worldwide," he told us, "I feel like we will be changing attitudes and developing an ethic of stewardship. I see ourselves getting there."
Cheryl Blaylock brings skills in theater and puppetry to her work with Trees New York. We followed her through three seasons, from Harlem to Williamsburg, as she trained citizen pruners, made puppets with kindergartners, coached high school interns, and managed a Tree Census team.
The Stuyvesant High School Environmental Club works with Trees New York on street trees and in parks around town. We met up with Jenny and Tracy in July 2015 while they were working along Riverside Drive. "We only have one Earth," Tracy said, "so it's very important that we take care of it."
Lucia Toledo worked in agroforestry in Bolivia before joining EarthCorps as a volunteer specialist. She talked with us during a work day in Seattle's Discovery Park as she welcomed volunteers and prepared a site for fall planting. "This site is like my little son or daughter," she said. "I will have memory of this place for a long time."
Gordon Matassa of Friends of the Urban Forest was pruning a strawberry arbutus tree in San Francisco’s Portola neighborhood when we visited with him and volunteer Tom Long. "We live in what we consider a very green city," Gordon told us, "but we don't have enough trees to back that up."
Adam Wargacki helps care for Piper's Orchard, now hidden away along a forest stream in Seattle's Carkeek Park. Much of the fruit he and his fellow orchardists harvest goes to food banks, but they make cider, too. "We go kind of slow," he says, "but that's how the work gets done. People coming together and doing what they enjoy—working with each other and working on these trees."
When Kemba Shakur moved to Oakland after working at Soledad Prison, there were no trees on her block. She started planting, and she founded Urban Releaf as a way of addressing high unemployment and poverty by engaging young people in urban forestry. Now her block is shaded, and she is pushing to raise Oakland's tree canopy to 40%.
Rosalyn LaPier is from the Blackfeet Reservation in northern Montana. When we met with her at the Piegan Institute in Browning, she told us about some of the roles of the cottonwood tree in Blackfeet culture and shared the story of her own intimate knowledge of plants.
For Marcus Webster, working with Oakland’s Urban Releaf is a chance to be part of a movement that "changes the whole vibe" of a city that's suffered more than its share of troubles. At Urban Releaf, as he put his carpentry skills to work and earned a paycheck, Marcus also discovered how trees can change a community.
Mindy Maslin has trained thousands of volunteers since she founded the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's Tree Tenders program in 1993. Caring for trees, she says, is "a natural way of revitalizing communities." Dozens of stories of "acquaintance, connection, and renewal" resulted from this work.
Michael Walsh is forestry programs manager for Forest ReLeaf of Missouri. When we visited, they had 20,000 trees of 50 different native species growing at their community nursery outside of St. Louis. Over the years, the organization has given away well over 110,000 trees.
George Yatskievych, a botanist with the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, told us about the decline of the hawthorn tree—a story that started with fencing of cows. "Humans have an effect on the landscape that isn't always predictable,” he said “ . . . until after the fact."
Akeem Davis, Jamal Davis, Kwame Davis, and Timothy Hudson are urban forest mentors with Urban Releaf. Together, they're working to transform Oakland, California's concrete streets by planting and caring for trees. "We'll get on it," Kwame says, "and fill them up with life." We visited with them at their headquarters as they took a break from watering newly planted trees.