The Forest Service Role in Urban Forestry

Tom Tidwell, Chief
Partners in Community Forestry National Conference
Portland, OR
— November 10, 2009


It’s a pleasure to be here with so many partners dedicated to working together to sustain and restore our nation’s urban forests. Conservation is about working together to resolve issues related to the nation’s natural resources. These issues, particularly in this era of climate change, extend across landscapes. Our nation’s water resources alone illustrate the connectivity of urban forests with our rural landscapes.

In the past, when most people thought of the Forest Service, they thought of timber production or Smokey Bear and fighting fires or maybe camping and fishing on a national forest. But today, more and more people have become aware of the work we do to restore native forest ecosystems, including right here in our cities. They have come to see this as some of our most important work because it takes place where most people live.

In September, I attended the annual meeting of the National Association of State Foresters, where I gave a presentation. During Q&A, someone asked me why I thought urban forests were important. Time didn’t permit a full answer, and since then I’ve given the question more thought. I’ve talked with our urban and community forestry experts, and I’ve looked into our corresponding programs. Today, I want to use my time to answer that question.

Landscape Interconnectivity

Why are urban forests so important? Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack recently set forth a vision for America’s forests. He called on Americans to restore our forests by working together across boundary lines, because forests are interconnected across landscapes, across landownerships. That interconnectivity is just as important in urban as in rural landscapes.

We tend to think of city and countryside as separate and distinct. A Roman poet once said that Romans long for the countryside … but when they are actually in the countryside they long for the pleasures of Rome. In reality, Rome and its surrounding countryside are interdependent parts of a greater whole. The writer Wendell Berry, a farmer himself, once said that the only sustainable city is a city in balance with its countryside.

Maybe the best way of illustrating that interdependence—that need for balance—is through water. Eighty percent of Americans live in metropolitan areas, and every one of them depends on water supplies that come from America’s forests, farms, and fields. Secretary Vilsack, in his recent speech on forestry, talked about “the simple act that we Americans often take for granted every day: turning on those water faucets. The clean water that emerges is made possible in large part by the stewardship of our working rural land and our forests in particular.”

Rivers and streams are the ribbons that tie landscapes together. The quality of our water—the quality of our urban lifestyle—depends on the quality of our stewardship across entire watersheds, from remote wilderness areas to our neighborhood parks and greenways. Similarly, the quality of our downstream habitats for aquatic plants and animals depends on the quality of our upstream stewardship of forests, farms, and fields, including our urban forests. The Columbia River—the Willamette River—these great American rivers are neither urban nor rural—they are both. They are living testaments to the continuity and interconnectivity of landscapes across entire watersheds.

The same goes for our forests. Americans tend to think of forests as remote greenery and cities as a built environment. For many Americans, the whole notion of an urban forest might sound like a contradiction in terms. But in reality, it is often difficult to tell where the countryside stops and the city begins. Most cities are surrounded by transition zones, with features of both rural and urban landscapes, and natural areas can reach deep into our urban centers. The city where I work, Washington, DC, has a park where President Theodore Roosevelt liked to roam—and T.R. was an outdoorsman. If someone woke up in the dense woods of Rock Creek Park, they might have trouble believing they were within walking distance of the White House.

America’s forests aren’t “out there” somewhere, far from where most people live. Forests begin right in our own backyards. They are a living continuum reaching from our neighborhood streets to the wildest reaches of Alaska. They reach from remote wilderness areas … to working landscapes where people camp and fish and cut wood … to private woodlots on a farmer’s “back forty” … to quiet suburban neighborhoods … to urban parks and shaded streets. Together, these landscapes form a critically important green infrastructure—a strategic resource vital to the future of our nation.

The lynchpin of that green infrastructure, in many ways, is the urban forest. Forested landscapes in our urban areas extend across 70 million acres, an area the size of Nevada. Because they are right where most people live, they provide ecosystem services directly to people: the conversion of sunlight into life-giving energy … soil protection … stormwater regulation … air and water purification … carbon sequestration … sources of wood and energy … habitat for native plants and animals … aesthetic beauty and opportunities for outdoor recreation … outdoor learning laboratories for school kids … and more.

The benefits are many. In Washington, DC, the public trees alone provide stormwater management benefits worth $3.7 million per year. Each year, the 663 million trees in Houston’s regional urban forest remove more than 60,000 tons of air pollutants, a service valued at $300 million per year. In terms of sheer weight, more woody yard waste is generated each year than national forest timber. The city of Lompoc, California, saves $100,000 annually in dumping costs by turning wastewood into bleachers, benches, signs, and furniture. Urban forests bolster our economy through the creation of green jobs. Green industries like horticulture and landscaping pump almost $150 billion dollars into the economy each year.

America’s urban forests are at the epicenter of American life, and that makes them especially important. The future of our green infrastructure depends on the willingness of our citizens to provide the resources needed to sustain it. For most Americans, their main exposure to water issues, to air quality issues, to climate issues, to wildlife issues—to forestry issues of all kinds—comes from what they see, feel, and hear around them in their urban forests—in their own backyards and in their neighborhood streets and parks.

Habitat connectivity issues become clear when you suddenly see foxes or coyotes in your neighborhood—or when the orioles and bluebirds that returned every year no longer come. Climate issues … bark beetle issues … become clear when the pines in your own backyard turn red. Invasive species issues become clear when your own prize maple or ash is infested and has to come down. Our cities are ground zero for invasives of all kinds, whether it’s Asian long-horned beetle in Chicago, emerald ash borer in Detroit, Port-Orford-cedar disease in Seattle, or chestnut blight in New York. In a sense, our urban forests are like a canary in a coal mine: They signal the health of our entire green infrastructure.

Forest Service Role

In short, America’s urban forests are a national treasure, to be protected and preserved for generations to come. It is our job, the job of all of us here, to sustain and restore our urban forests. I welcome your partnership and commend you for your commitment.

So: What role does the Forest Service play in caring for our nation’s urban forests? After all, we’ve long been best known for managing the National Forest System, and that’s where most of our resources go. Why should we play a role in urban forestry, and what do we have to offer?

The mission of the Forest Service is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests, not just the national forests. There is good reason for that. America’s landscapes are interconnected across state, private, tribal, county, municipal, and federal ownerships. Stresses like drought, fire, insects, disease, and invasive species do not respect boundary lines. No one of us can succeed alone, especially in an era of climate change. Ecological restoration—caring for the land and serving people—will take an all-lands approach, with landowners, land managers, and stakeholders working together across boundary lines toward common goals for the landscapes they all share. Our job at the Forest Service is to work with partners to restore the nation’s forests, both public and private, both rural and urban, through landscape-scale conservation.

With that said, our Urban and Community Forestry program is modest—on the order of $30 million per year. Still, the Forest Service has unique capacities, and by using them to leverage our resources, together with all your work, our program is able to reach about 7,000 communities each year, with about 177 million people living in those communities.

One of our unique capacities is our research organization. The Forest Service has the largest research organization in the world dedicated solely to conservation. We have 7 research stations and 81 experimental areas nationwide, representing 85 percent of the forest types in the United States. We have a century of data on forest cover, water, wildlife, and other resources, much of it relevant to urban forestry.

For example, our researchers and partners developed i-Tree, a suite of software tools that communities are using to measure the benefits they get from urban forests. It’s one thing to tell community planners in Milwaukee, for instance, that America’s forests sequester 12 percent of the carbon dioxide that Americans emit through fossil fuel use each year. That’s great, but how does it apply to Milwaukee? But through i-Tree, they can discover that Milwaukee’s trees sequester 15,500 tons of carbon each year, with an associated value of $321,000. Now that’s information they can use. This is the type of information that I am hopeful will help tell the story about the value of urban forests. Thousands of communities across the United States and hundreds more around the world are already using i-Tree.

We have also just partnered with the National Science Foundation to provide Urban Long-Term Research Area Exploratory Grants. Teams of scientists and practitioners from 19 cities received grants to study the interactions between people and natural ecosystems in urban settings.

Another of our special strengths is our capacity for partnership. We have always worked through partnerships, going back to our very beginnings more than a century ago. Our urban and community forestry specialists often work behind the scenes through partners like you, the state forestry agencies, the National Association of Regional Councils, the Sustainable Urban Forest Coalition, the Alliance for Community Trees, and the Arbor Day Foundation. We have connections with partners down to the community level, helping them mobilize resources, partly by coordinating our activities with other USDA agencies.

Commitment to Urban Forestry

Together, we have a lot to offer the urban forestry community, and the urban forestry community has a lot to offer our nation. America’s green infrastructure is a strategic national resource of critical importance to our national well-being. At its heart are the urban forests where four out of five Americans live. You in the urban forestry community are on the front lines of protecting our nation’s forest resources. The Forest Service stands ready to work with you to sustain and restore this great national resource for the benefit of generations to come.

As Chief of the agency responsible for our nation’s forests, I want to assure you of two things.

One: The Forest Service will always consider urban and community forests a vital part of our nation’s forests.

Two: As the ones who are most directly involved with caring for our urban forest resources, we need your help and guidance to make sure we do things right. We want to focus on your needs … to work with you to build an understanding for all the benefits people get from urban forests. Urban forests can connect communities and children to nature. By better connecting people to nature, we can build an understanding for the importance of urban forests and their connectivity with the nation’s forests.


Horace, Satires (I, vii, l. 28): “In Rome you long for the country; in the country—oh inconstant!—you praise the distant city to the stars.” In the Atlantic Monthly, February 1991.