Urban tree program helps improve Washington communities

A grant from the Puyallup Watershed Initiative is allowing Washington’s Pierce Conservation District (PCD) to strengthen its jurisdictional partnerships and add canopy coverage in some of Pierce County’s most urban areas.

Over the past three years, the PCD has received $45,000 for its urban tree sale, which offers discounted trees to city and county residents to plant on their property and along streets. The sale also provides planting resources, education and ongoing support.

According to Melissa Buckingham, Water Quality Program Director for Pierce Conservation District, soil in the Pacific Northwest has evolved to handle the water it receives in part with robust evergreens. As cities grow and trees are removed to make way for roads, homes, shopping centers, etc., streams are not able to handle the excess water runoff from impervious surfaces.

“In our urban settings, we have water quality problems associated with tree removal, lawn installation and impervious surfaces,” Buckingham said. “People have dogs, they use fertilizers and herbicides to keep lawns green, there’s car pollution and all of that is getting into our catch basins. When you start adding green canopy back in, you are adding nature’s processes back into our cities. Trees provide filtration, shade, reduce asthma, and help prolong the life of urban materials such as roads, sidewalks and parking lots.”

There’s also economic value attached to trees. Studies show trees increase property value, and in urban areas, they reduce noise, improve the ecosystem and cool sidewalks.

PCD offered a discounted tree program in 2013 as a partnership between the City of Tacoma, Pierce County and Pierce Conservation District with funds from the Puget Sound Partnership. The program offered general tree workshops throughout the county with the incentive of a discounted tree for participants.

In 2016, a $15,000 Forestry Community of Interest grant from the Puyallup Watershed Initiative changed the direction of the program. Rather than provide a discounted tree after attending a general tree workshop, the PCD offered the discounted tree sale to urban communities in an effort to reintroduce and establish canopy cover.

Through a $20,000 grant in 2017, specific areas were identified by the PCD’s jurisdictional partners: the cities of Tacoma and Puyallup and unincorporated Pierce County. This year, the PCD will use a $10,000 grant to fund the sale and locations will be selected in the same manner with partners creating a list of their desired neighborhoods for the PCD to deliver the program there.

“We’re in a unique situation,” Buckingham said. “We are able to help our jurisdictional partners meet their goals since conservation districts can work on private property and our jurisdictional partners can only work on public properties. We consider ourselves an extension of their staff in assisting them to meet their goals.”

The city of Tacoma, for example, has an urban forestry policy element in its comprehensive planning with the goal of establishing a citywide tree canopy cover of 30 percent by the year 2030 through education, outreach, programs and partnerships.

In 2016, the same year the PCD held its first sale for lower income areas, the city adopted an environmental action plan that includes tree planting in neighborhoods identified by socioeconomics and low canopy coverage.

PCD’s tree sale complements the city’s goals and ensures the proper species is planted for the property, whether that’s in a small backyard, under power lines or in the street right-of-way. In the past couple of years, about five percent of the roughly 600 trees sold were planted in the street right-of-way with the rest being planted on private property, Buckingham said.

Mike Carey, Urban Forest Program Manager with the Office of Environmental Policy and Sustainability for the City of Tacoma believes Buckingham has had a significant impact. “She’s (Buckingham) an awesome partner,” Carney said. “She’s taken the areas we want to target to improve community health and provides a more hands-on approach. At the city level, we don’t have the capacity to do that ourselves.”

Outreach consists of postcards, informational flyers, door-to-door campaigns, promotions at events and Facebook engagement. A tree workshop is provided with the sale to educate the buyer on urban forestry in the county and proper care of the tree as it matures.

“There are challenges,” Buckingham said. “We’re still dialing in to the level of staff needed to get into the areas targeted.”

For 2018, Pierce Conservation District’s AmeriCorps will canvas the targeted areas and leave information about appropriate trees for that property as a way to customize outreach for those residents.

Many native species cannot thrive in an urban setting because of higher temperatures, air pollution and space. For example, native conifers require a large area to grow and maple tree branches break easily, so they would not work well planted near homes or streets. Despite such restrictions, the PCD does offer a diverse selection, typically eight to ten different species each year.

“We’re hopeful that in a couple of years when the grant money runs out that our urban jurisdictional partners will like the program enough that they will self-fund the trees that get planted in their jurisdiction,” Buckingham said.

For more information, visit

Latest News

Calendar of Events

Find your Local District