April 22 is Earth Day, the day that many Seattleites will evaluate their community involvement in environmental sustainability and wondering how to can get involved in local efforts. For those who are interested or for anyone who has tripped on an uneven sidewalk lately, a great way to become active in urban forestry in Queen Anne and throughout the city of Seattle is through the Tree Ambassador program.
Lower Queen Anne resident Travis Winn, 24, has been volunteering as a Tree Ambassador for two years now.
“I was kind of under-employed. They say to get involved in organizations, and so that’s what I did,” he explained. “One day, the QFC was being torn down, and I saw a notice for the street trees that a couple of them were going to get removed and I was like, ‘What?! They don’t need to be removed!’” Winn recalled.
After researching the Tree Ambassador program on-line, he decided, “Well, instead of just getting perturbed about them taking out trees, why not get involved and do something about it?”
Winn learned that working with city trees could sometimes be a frustrating and arduous process, as there are sometimes disputes regarding who owns the trees and who is responsible for maintaining them.
“This is where all the politics come into play,” he said. “It’s like, people trip on the sidewalks — who’s responsible for it? Are they city trees? Are they owned by the City of Seattle, or is the property owner responsible for taking care of these trees? And so, those are a lot of the factors.”
Still, as a tree-lover and activist, Winn has found the volunteer program to be an excellent outlet for his passions. “Instead of just getting angry and writing comments at the bottom of a news article, it’s like being active, and so that’s what it’s provided for me. I’ve given a little to the community…but it’s given a lot back to me,” he said.
The program was created as an effort between the City of Seattle and the nonprofit organization Forterra (previously known as the Cascade Land Conservancy), the largest conservation and community-building organization in Washington state. The 2-year-old effort sprouted from a movement to increase awareness and community involvement in tree sustainability.
“The idea of having people in each neighborhood comes out of Seattle’s Urban Forest Management plan, which is our overall plan for growing our canopy in the city,” explained Jana Dilley, who oversees the Tree Ambassador program as the Seattle reLeaf program manager. “The city focuses on urban forestry because there are so many benefits that it provides.”
Dilley operates the program in conjunction with Andrea Mojzak , the Green Cities project associate with Forterra. Forterra and Cascade Land Conservancy are most well-known for their Traditional Green Cities program, which is working in parklands and natural areas, Mojzak explained.
“About two years ago, we realized that there was a component missing in the urban forestry programming, which is looking at those forests that were not in parklands — so residential tress, trees in the parking strips, trees in people’s yards — and trying to get the community involved with those trees. That is where the Tree Ambassador program came from,” she said.
Identifying neighborhood needs
The Seattle Tree Ambassador program allows individuals within a community to become active in promoting sustainable urban forestry through a variety of self-developed efforts. Although volunteers are not currently involved in local construction projects, as Tree Ambassadors, volunteers are given the opportunity to participate in a variety of neighborhood efforts involving trees — from mulching, to tree planting, to the removal of noxious species.
“[Volunteers] have the opportunity to get tons of training about all aspects of urban forestry…. There is a lot of bureaucracy with putting in trees and taking out trees, so they kind of get the ins-and-outs of that, as well as the basic biology of trees and horticulture, pruning, how to run volunteer events, how to engage your community — that type of training,” Mojzak said.
All volunteers are required to attend weekly trainings that last several months.
“That’s one of the things that really struck is that there are a lot of people out there that are really interested — they’re just looking for some guidance,” Dilley said.
Uniquely, the Tree Ambassador program in Seattle doesn’t require neighborhoods to perform many specific tasks, in part because program managers understand that the neighborhoods in Seattle are diverse and have a variety of specific needs that residents would be best able to identify.
“We let each neighborhood kind of identify what their needs are in their neighborhood, and then we help tailor projects,” Mojzak said.
As part of his volunteer efforts in Queen Anne, Winn has organized a tree walk, designed to inform residents about the trees in their area and to educate neighbors about conservation efforts and needs. The Seattle Center Earth Day Tree Walk will take place April 21 at the Seattle Center, starting at 1 p.m. More details about this event and others around Seattle can be found at seattle.gov/trees.
Forterra and the City of Seattle will accept applications for Tree Ambassadors in spring 2014, and until then, the program managers are happy to connect neighborhood residents with existing volunteers in their area.
“We are just happy to have people involved, with the program being so young,” Mojzak said. “But I can see it becoming more of an official commitment in coming years as we get more people on board.”
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