Midwest industrial city greens up with Forest Service support

Adi Cruz, Dan Canning, and Mayor Steve Spebarplant a tree in Whiting, Indiana

Adi Cruz, director of Whiting’s Parks & Recreation department (left); Dan Canning, from Whiting’s Street & Sanitation department (center); and Steve Spebar, mayor of Whiting (right) plant a tree in Whiting, Indiana, on July 22, 2022. USDA Forest Service photo by Drew Hart.

This story is part of a series and highlights one of the 14 common themes identified in the 2020 regional State Forest Action Plan summary report. The theme for August 2022 is Urban and Community Forest Management.

The city of Whiting, Indiana, has an ambitious goal to plant 5,000 trees in the next five years, made possible through a joint collaborative effort including USDA Forest Service technical assistance.

Whiting is in a heavily industrialized section of northwestern Indiana. It is a socially vulnerable community, home to the largest BP refinery in the United States and several other industries. The city has a very low tree canopy cover at 4%. The land area where the refinery is located spans over half the city and is covered in asphalt, concrete and other materials, making much of its surface impervious to rainfall. 

The mayor of Whiting and BP operations staff recently agreed to use land owned by BP and the city to improve tree canopy cover there and create a vegetative buffer between the refinery and surrounding neighborhoods.

About 45 primarily native hardwood species will be planted, said Daiva Gylys, the national manager for community programs at the Student Conservation Association (SCA). The species planted in each spot will depend on the site and soil conditions, ability to take up particulates in the air and stormwater retention.

The newly planted trees will address the sparse canopy cover, provide community benefits through stormwater retention, capture particulate matter, provide community engagement and beautify the landscape. The trees can also help provide a natural noise buffer. 

The University of Illinois Landscape Architecture  partnered with the city to design landscape plans for vacant lots to be forested. So far, two of these lots have been planted with more to come.

BP agreed to fund an SCA Tree Team to focus on this tree planting and maintenance initiative. The local SCA planted more than 100 of the 5,000 trees so far, with thousands more trees planned for over the next five years.

This project has multiple partners, including the city of Whiting, Northwest Indiana Regional Planning Commission (NIRPC), SCA, BP America, University of Illinois Landscape Architecture program, USDA Forest Service, Indiana Department of Natural Resources' urban forestry program, Northern Indiana Public Service Company, Wildlife Habitat Council and Urban Waters Federal Partnership. Several of these organizations are core partners in the CommuniTree Program locally administered by the NIRPC. To date, CommuniTree has planted over 10,000 trees through the program.

Drew Hart, a Forest Service natural resource liaison based in the Chicago area, described the project as a “true collaboration.” Gylys agreed, calling it “a strong example for future collaboration in how to achieve a successful project.”

Gylys added, “I’m happy to be part of an initiative that employs young local people, works in conservation and community engagement. The experience of planting a tree in your neighborhood is one that will last forever.”

Major funding for the project is provided through the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation Chi-Cal Rivers Fund in the amount of $183,224.73. The total contributions also include in-kind and cash match.

The Forest Service is providing technical assistance to this project, along with indirect funding of $120,000 through NIRPC (Great Lakes Restoration Initiative) and the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation Chi-Cal Rivers Fund.

BP America has agreed to pay for the cost of the trees and subsequent maintenance on BP-owned land within Whiting and East Chicago.

The project started with a funding request from the city of Whiting in 2017; the current funding will cover costs for the project through 2023.

This initiative aligns with several of Indiana’s State Forest Action Plan goals — among them, significantly increasing the size of Indiana’s forest canopy, connecting people to forests and promoting the use of trees and urban forests.

Mary Pat McGuire with Mayor Steve Spebar and students in Whiting, Indiana

Mary Pat McGuire with Mayor Steve Spebar and students in Whiting, Indiana, on July 22, 2022. USDA Forest Service photo by Drew Hart.