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Cultivating resilience: Urban, community forestry initiatives in US Virgin Islands

March 1, 2024

Group of 10 people hiking tropical forest stopped at interpretive sign
International Institute of Tropical Forestry, Washington Office State, Private and Tribal Forestry, and V.I. Trail Alliance staff take a hike through VI Trail Alliance trails in St. Croix conservation land. USDA Forest Service photo by Diana Martínez.

St. Croix—In the face of escalating climate challenges, the U.S. Virgin Islands is implementing transformative solutions that blend environmental stewardship, education and cultural heritage. Through three highly collaborative projects funded by Urban and Community Forestry Program grants  made possible by the Inflation Reduction Act, the Virgin Islands Department of Agriculture, V.I. Trail Alliance, St. George Village Botanical Garden, and other partners are leading the charge toward a greener, more sustainable future for the people of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Leaders of these initiatives are deeply rooted in the communities they serve. They find in these grants the support needed to broaden the work they have been conducting in the islands for many years.

One such leader is Dr. Olasee Davis, board member of the V.I. Trail Alliance and agriculture professor at the University of Virgin Islands. “Trees are our friends,” said Davis as he listed the numerous ways in which trees serve the community—offering economic value, protecting property during hurricanes, retaining water and cooling the temperature. The V.I. Trail Alliance’s project includes planting food trees along the island’s streambeds. “Traditionally here, over 200 years [ago], our ancestors planted trees along guts or streams,” added Davis.

A hand reaches up toward the fruit of a gooseberry tree.
Gooseberry tree in Sundial Park, a V.I. Trail Alliance community park in the Tulipan Community, St. Croix. USDA Forest Service photo by Diana Martínez.

At the heart of these initiatives lies a profound appreciation for cultural heritage. The St. George Village Botanical Garden is planting 1,100 trees, especially fruit, nut and spice trees, and providing 800 trees for the public school system. The garden is currently home to plants of cultural importance, which have traditionally been used as food, medicine, fiber, color dyes and building materials in the Caribbean. This careful selection not only enhances the resilience of the landscape but also nurtures a deeper connection to the land within the community.

In addition to mitigating the effects of rising temperatures, these proposals also prioritize educational outreach, encouraging continuity of their efforts by empowering future generations. “How we sustain this initiative is by ensuring that we have a pipeline of prepared people—young people, older people—who are skilled to continue these initiatives,” said Diana Collingwood, assistant commissioner for VIDA.

St. George Botanical Garden, for example, is partnering with local schools to offer forestry education, field trips, summer internships and teacher leader training as part of their project.

The State, Private and Tribal Forestry Unit at the International Institute of Tropical Forestry works diligently to build and maintain relationships that make sure that these funds reach the communities that need them most. "We are honored to be able to support local organizations in the U.S. Virgin Islands. It’s our job to set forward in this venture to build a hopeful and greener future alongside our communities,” said Magaly Figueroa, State, Private and Tribal Forestry program manager for Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands at IITF. The Urban and Community Forestry Program aims to help all communities create urban and community forests that are diverse, healthy and accessible for all citizens.

In the U.S. Virgin Islands, the program helps the V.I. Department of Agriculture deliver tree benefits to local communities on the islands. “We are excited about to the collaborative efforts with the VI Department of Agriculture, St. George Village Botanical Garden, Virgin Islands Trail Alliance, Inc. to revitalize urban forests, provide multigenerational education and workforce development in urban forestry and provide tools for resiliency for healthier forests in the Caribbean islands,” said Dr. Grizelle González, institute director.

These grants empower the people of the U.S. Virgin Islands to take charge of their future. “We are finding solutions within ourselves to solve problems,” said Collingwood.

This is a historic investment in the U.S. Virgin Islands, providing $6.5 million through the Inflation Reduction Act to plant and maintain trees in disadvantaged urban communities, tackle the climate crisis, and support jobs and workforce development. For the next five years, VIDA, St. George Village Botanical Garden and the V.I. Trail Alliance will execute their projects focused on tree planting, restoration and resilience, workforce development and tackling extreme heat.