Forestry Notes Q&A: Sustainable Urban Forests Coalition

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By Mike Beacom

Gerry Gray and Paul Ries serve as co-chairs of the Sustainable Urban Forests Coalition (SUFC), whose mission is to “increase tangible support for urban forests on a national and local level; educate diverse audiences (from policy makers to the public) about the value and need for healthy urban forests; and network and leverage resources and knowledge among member organizations.” The Coalition’s 35 members represent state and federal agencies, non-governmental organizations, private industry and other urban forestry interests.

Ries is entering his third year as SUFC co-chair. Prior to that he served as an Associate Deputy Chief for the U.S. Forest Service. Before that he served as the national Director of Cooperative Forestry. Gray is a forest conservation consultant. Earlier this year he replaced Don Winsett as SUFC co-chair. Ries and Gray took some time this spring to visit with NACD Forestry Notes.

Forestry Notes: SUFC has been active for more than a decade now. What did the urban forestry movement look like pre-2004?

GRAY: I think of the urban forestry movement prior to 2004 as more segmented and disjointed than it is today. It was a complex array of local, state and national organizations working on projects, programs and policies related to urban forestry. All were trying to advance understanding of the field, and most were working under the broad umbrella of the U.S. Forest Service’s Urban and Community Forestry Program, but coordination and cooperation were limited.

RIES: I would say many of the same organizations that were involved in urban and community forestry pre-2004 are still involved today. The main difference I see today is that they are now doing more to work together and have become a community, as compared to disparate organizations each doing their own thing. They have also been joined by a broad and diverse set of organizations not necessarily focused on urban and community forestry but with urban and community forestry as a part of their mission (such as NACD).

Gerry Gray, co-chair of the Sustainable Urban Forests Coalition.

Finish this sentence: I decided to serve as co-chair of SUFC because ____________

GRAY: I had served on the policy working group and the steering committee for many years. I found working with SUFC to be meaningful and rewarding. I enjoyed serving with the people who came to the table to do the Coalition’s work, and I respected the member organizations. I also believed in SUFC’s mission and thought the Coalition was uniquely positioned to help people understand that urban trees and forests are critical to the health and well-being of our nation’s growing urban populations.

RIES: I also believe in the mission – I believe it is important – and respect and value the people and organizations involved with the Coalition. I worked with many of them when I was with the U.S. Forest Service, and am honored to be able to serve them in a volunteer capacity in retirement.

U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell has made a point to mention in recent speeches that 83% of Americans now live in urban/metro areas. How has this statistic helped SUFC and your individual organizations promote the importance of strong, vibrant urban forestry programs?

GRAY: This statistic helps to open people’s eyes and get them thinking about why urban forests are important. The SUFC and its diverse member organizations partner with the Forest Service to build awareness and understanding of urban forests and the many environmental, social and economic benefits these forests provide to people in urban areas. It makes sense to reach out to people where they live and to communicate with them about the trees and forests they know best and care about most—those in their backyards, neighborhoods and communities.

RIES: Nearly all of us in this country live in a forest – whether in rural Idaho where I live, or in the urban forest of New York or Los Angeles. Those forests where we live provide clean air, clean water, energy conservation (winter and summer), green jobs, carbon sequestration, stormwater management, improved property values, reduced crime, human health benefits, wildlife habitat, human habitat (for us and our children), and many more benefits. To continue to enjoy these benefits, it is important we care for our forests – all of our forests – but especially the forests providing those benefits directly to 83% of Americans every day, right where they live, work and play.

Give me one statistic you refer to often when talking to people about SUFC’s mission (or the importance of urban forestry).

GRAY: I like to tell people that urban forests currently cover 130 million acres—equal to about 17 percent of our nation’s total forest area of 766 million acres.

RIES: The urban forest is composed of the hardest working trees in America. They provide us with countless benefits valued at over $2.4 trillion. We all benefit from urban forests, especially the more than the 220 million people living in urban areas.

Conservation districts, same as other organizations, use big tree (or champion tree) programs as a way to begin a conversation with homeowners about tree care. What other tools, tricks are good conversation starters for potential urban forestry friends?

Paul Ries, co-chair of the Sustainable Urban Forests Coalition.

GRAY: People often appreciate trees for their aesthetics, or beauty, in yards, parks, or neighborhoods, but they may not realize the benefits trees provide for increased property values, shading and energy conservation, air quality, or stormwater management. I like to use these as conversation starters, beginning with topics that are likely to resonate with homeowners in their particular context.

RIES: I really like i-tree ( It lets someone quickly and easily calculate the benefits of the trees on their property, or in their community (county, state and national summaries are also available). It is a great way to get started in understanding the benefits of trees.

What do you believe will be urban forestry’s toughest sell/biggest obstacle in the coming decade?

GRAY: Our toughest sell is getting people to realize that trees are more than pretty objects along streets; they are essential parts of natural systems that provide the environmental foundation for their communities. A value statement in our Strategic Plan to which I strongly relate is, “SUFC holds the common belief that thriving, vibrant communities grow from healthy natural systems.”

RIES: I feel our biggest challenge will remain what it is currently – helping people understand the importance of the trees in their cities and towns. We have made significant progress with the ability to quantify benefits with programs such as i-tree, but we still have a long ways to go.

What can local conservation districts do to advance SUFC’s mission?

GRAY: There is a growing list of SUFC members and partners that would welcome the participation of local conservation districts in their efforts. I also believe that NACD and its local conservation districts have a unique capacity to help build understanding of the connections between urban and rural forests, communities and landscapes. These urban-rural connections are becoming increasingly important as we look to achieve healthy and resilient natural systems to sustain thriving and vibrant human communities into the future.

RIES: Get involved locally with local tree boards and other local organizations that have an interest in urban and community forestry. Many of them are SUFC members. Get involved at the state level by working with the state forester and state chapters of SUFC member organizations. And finally, get involved nationally through NACD and its connections to SUFC and its members.

To read more feature stories from Forestry Notes, follow Mike Beacom, NACD’s forestry specialist, here on NACD’s blog or subscribe to Forestry Notes by clicking here.

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