Together we can grow the canopy: Friends of Trees Op-Ed

By Yashar Vasef

On Sunday, April 3, The Oregonian published an Op-Ed that I wrote: “Amid shrinking canopy, community tree planting needed more than ever.” In it, I address Portland’s reported tree canopy loss and the end of our contract with the City of Portland to plant street and yard trees in the city. We appreciate the opportunity to bring attention to the importance of community tree planting and we are so grateful for all the support we’ve already received.

We wanted to share its contents with you, and answer some of the questions you may have after reading it.

Opinion: Amid shrinking canopy, community tree planting needed more than ever

The recent report about the loss of tree canopy in Portland is yet another piece of grim news related to how the climate crisis is threatening the health of our environment and our community (“Portland tree canopy has stagnated or shrunk, harming city’s climate change aspirations,” March 22). The report indicates that Portland’s urban tree canopy has shrunk or plateaued for the first time in 50 years ­– a warning that the city will not be able to meet its goal of having tree canopy encompass 33% of the city’s area by 2035.

Unfortunately, the release of the report coincides with the end of Friends of Trees’ 14-year contract with the city to plant street and yard trees through community planting events. This nationally-replicated partnership between Friends of Trees and the city has added nearly 40,000 street and yard trees throughout Portland since 2008, while engaging thousands of community members as volunteers to plant and care for these trees. About 70% of those trees were planted in underserved, low-canopy neighborhoods to address inequities in the distribution of Portland’s trees.

We truthfully do not know why this successful partnership is ending. There has been an abundance of rumors and speculation, but all we know is that our contract ends this June and we do not know of any city plan to invest in programs that center authentic community engagement in planting street and yard trees in Portland. Especially as we see accelerating and intensifying climate impacts right here at home, fighting climate change needs all hands on deck: government, nonprofits and communities collaborating with a necessary sense of urgency.

It’s not just about ending a contract with Friends of Trees—we understand that contracts end and terms change. But given that we are experiencing a true climate crisis, we don’t believe this is the time to cut a successful tree planting program that also builds community through bringing volunteers together to help grow our urban canopy. Tree planting is one of the best tools at our disposal, and we encourage our city leaders to increase and broaden investments in community tree planting ­– with us or with others – and to pursue other proven strategies that fight climate change, promote climate action and foster climate justice.

Friends of Trees is fortunate to have growing support throughout the region and from other municipalities. We want to keep our momentum here in Portland, too, where we can harness our established partnerships, volunteer resources and community buy-in to contribute to the efforts to plant more trees in Portland. We believe that the city should continue to fund community tree planting; of course, we would love to be included in that funding, and we think other organizations should be included, too. This is the time to grow public investment in trees, not cut back.

We need trees more than ever, for their ability to improve air quality, store stormwater, provide shade, improve the mental and physical health of our community members and so much more. That’s why we engage trained volunteers to check on and help care for each tree after it gets planted. Post-planting care and assessment, combined with ongoing communication with tree recipients, contributes to a 95%-plus survival rate.

Community planting nurtures more than trees. Our events engage volunteers of all ages, races, religions, sexual orientation, gender identity, economic status and political views to plant and care for trees together. We partner with other organizations that center climate justice and engage people from historically underserved communities to directly play a part in improving the health and livability of their neighborhoods. It includes environmental education and internships that expand opportunities to enter the green workforce. Authentically engaging communities is crucial toward achieving climate justice.

There is a ripple effect from participating in tree planting that goes beyond the trees and the many benefits they provide. We have seen firsthand how planting and caring for trees increases community members’ engagement with the environment and participation in civic life, especially when it comes to climate action. An investment in community tree planting is an investment in stewarding future climate action.

We recognize that the end of this partnership raises questions about the future of our work, particularly in Portland. While the partnership with the City has been a significant part of our organization’s history, there’s so much else that Friends of Trees provides to the community, and we will continue to keep engaging volunteers to plant and care for as many trees and native plants as we can in Western Oregon and Southwest Washington.

Q: What is Friends of Trees doing in response to this development?

We are doing everything we can to make sure that there is still community tree planting in Portland. We are talking to partner organizations, community members, and government officials about how we can make tree planting easier, more accessible, and more equitable.

We will also continue growing our work with other municipalities throughout the region, as we find great value in these partnerships and what they can accomplish. And no matter where we plant, we will plant the Friends of Trees Way.

Q: What’s wrong with the City planting trees themselves?

Absolutely nothing! We want the City to plant trees. We do not believe that this issue is us versus them. There is an important role for government to play in planting and caring for trees.

We believe that it’s also important to include community organizations in those efforts. We want to help, and we want our partner organizations to be able to help. The more trees that get planted, the better. Be it with the City, Friends of Trees, or other community organizations, all avenues to tree planting should be open.

In addition to getting trees in the ground, Friends of Trees adds unique value to the process through community engagement. We have been involving community members in tree planting for over 30 years. Our staff has knowledge that goes beyond tree planting and tree care to volunteer engagement and education. Authentic engagement with the community always leads to more success for the tree.

More FAQ with additional information is here, we will update as needed. Thanks so much for supporting trees + community!