Partner Spotlight: U.S. Forest Service

Photo: USFS

Photo: USFS

The United States Forest Service is a federal agency whose mission is summed up succinctly by its motto: “Caring for the land and serving people.” The Forest Service manages 193 million acres of federally-owned national forests, which is not to mention the 500 million acres of private, state and tribal forests the Service supports through its many programs. The Forest Service also boasts the largest forest research organization in the world.

Urban Forests

An area of focus for the Forest Service is Urban and Community Forestry. Urban forests look different than natural forests; they can be urban parks, street trees, river and coastal promenades, wetlands, nature preserves, or working trees at former industrial sites, but they provide many of the same community benefits that natural forests provide. There are over 130 million acres of urban forests in the U.S., and as cities grow larger, this number is increasing.

“When the Urban and Community Forestry Program was expanded and authorized by Congress in 1990, the legislation formally recognized the benefits that trees provide to cities, including air quality, public health and community livability,” said Alice Ewen, the National Program Manager of the Urban and Community Forestry Program at the U.S. Forest Service.

“The 1990 Farm Bill also recognized that there needed to be assistance provided to communities to help them understand urban forests and promote best practices for managing that resource,” Ewen said.

As America becomes more urbanized, urban forests are growing and Ewen says there is a lot of opportunity to take advantage of urban forests as an ecological system and as an asset for cities.

Urban forests are being used to manage stormwater, reduce air pollution and particulate matter in the air, provide shade and cooling to help reduce the urban heat island effect and improve the health of community members.

There is an abundance of research to support that more access to parks, green space and even the view of a green tree can improve how people feel, how they recover after injury and how they perform in school and at work.

Since trees provide us with benefits, it’s important for communities to have a management plan in place to protect and professionally manage their urban forests, Ewen said. This is done through engaged local government, community non-profit organizations or volunteer tree boards, with support from State Forestry agencies devoted to natural resources. The Forest Service is also involved in national initiatives that help local communities directly.

Urban Waters Federal Partnership

The Urban Waters Federal Partnership is an interagency partnership between 14 Federal agencies dedicated to the shared goals of restoring urban waters and revitalizing the communities that surround them.

“The Partnership focuses on underserved and disadvantaged communities that are adjacent to urban waterways, but not receiving benefits from that proximity,” Ewen said.

The program launched in 2011, and now supports 19 locations nationwide where Federal agencies coordinate existing resources to partner more effectively with communities to restore urban waters, promote access and provide economic opportunities.

The Forest Service has taken the leading role in providing technical assistance and support to the Urban Waters sites in Baltimore, Denver, Seattle, northwest Indiana and the Greater Philadelphia region. The Forest Service is a contributing partner in eight of the other locations.

“One of the most positive things about the Urban Waters Federal Partnership has been a place-based approach,” Ewen said. “We’re working directly with cities, local nonprofits and local community leaders to identify community needs as they define them, and then looking across the federal agencies to find how we can address those needs using our existing programs.”

Federal agencies banding together and leveraging resources across large landscapes has led to major benefits in communities.

Community Benefits

Through UW, agencies developed a national partnership with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) focused on urban watershed revitalization. In the last three years of this program, NFWF and Federal agencies have been working together with private partners to support 178 projects across the country, resulting in $23.9 million of projects that improve neighborhoods, restore watersheds and enhance the health of community forests. This represents an eightfold return on Federal investment in the program, according to Ewen.

The money supports community restoration projects like tree planting, invasive species removal and waterway restoration. The approach is different in every community.

The Five Star-Urban Waters grant program is a great example of how the public and private sector can work smarter together to accomplish the good we want to see on the ground, in communities,” Ewen said.

In Baltimore, the UW Partnership led the city to create its Green Pattern Book, which provides neighborhoods, communities and non-profits with ideas for how to improve vacant lots. Eight different “patterns” have been identified as methods for stabilizing and re-using vacant land while also reducing stormwater and providing community benefits such as urban agriculture, parks and trees.

In Denver, the South Platte UW Partnership supported projects like the Denver Metro Water Quality Assessment and regional messaging campaign to change behaviors to improve water quality, implementation of green infrastructure amenities in environmental justice neighborhoods and the creation and administration of outdoor classrooms.

Next, the Denver partnership will undertake a mapping and assessment of the region’s “natural capital,” a first-of-its-kind project that will help integrate green infrastructure considerations into planning and growth decisions.

As the UW Partnership matures, local communities are looking forward to establishing funding and partnership structures that will ensure long-term sustainability of the Urban Waters initiative into the future.

The Future

“To boil it all down, more trees are better for cities,” Ewen said. “This sounds simple, but there are a lot of questions cities need help answering – for example, where and what to plant, how to engage the public, how to plan and maintain urban forests for the long term, and how to balance benefits against costs or competing goals.”

Planting more trees, and protecting and caring for mature tree canopy, means better stormwater control, more rainwater interception and more cooling benefits for cities, Ewen said. Those things support resiliency for cities to stand up to climate change.

“Heat is going to be a real challenge — as cities get hotter and hotter, there is a higher risk of heat-related fatalities and human health concerns,” Ewen said. “The more we can cool down cities with natural means like integrating green infrastructure, the better and more resilient our communities will be.”

This year, the UW Partnership hit a milestone when 28 national nonprofit organizations signed in support of the Urban Waters vision, mission and principles. Each of those organizations made commitments or stated how their work aligned with the work going on in the UW Partnership. Some of those organizations include Smart Growth Network partners like American Planning Association, American Society of Landscape Architects, the Conservation Fund and the Trust for Public Land.

“I think it’s true for all of us, as federal agencies and as nonprofits, we don’t want to be the only one working on this. We want to be part of a strong team that’s working together. Having private sector support begin to align with our mission will be a key ingredient in how we sustain the success of the UW Partnership going forward into the future,” Ewen said.