Speaking for the trees: Campaign aims to avert canopy-loss crisis

Two years ago, following a Cincinnati Parks presentation about the many threats facing our region’s trees, collaborators within The Green Partnership for Greater Cincinnati knew they had to do something focused specifically on restoring our tree canopy.
The initial effort was small. Each of the six GPGC institutions started with some land and some plantings, but in 2013, a converging of events occurred, and out of it came Taking Root—a campaign with a much larger goal: to plant 2 million trees in the Ohio Kentucky Indiana Regional Council of Governments’ eight-county region by 2020.
OKIThe Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden and Green Umbrella, which is the nonprofit sponsor and fiscal agent for Taking Root, all joined GPCC to kick off the campaign. Now, one year later, a community effort is underway as individuals come together to protect and expand our tree canopy.  
The Crisis
Weather, pathogens and exotic insects are plaguing the region’s trees.
In the next five years, for example, the Ash tree will become virtually extinct in our area.
According to Dave Gamstetter, natural resource manager for the Cincinnati Park Board, when the forest canopy was last measured in 2010, it was at 39 percent—down only 1 percent from the measurement taken 10 years prior.
But the overall city canopy is composed of 10 percent Ash—a tree that has fallen victim to the Emerald Ash Borer infestation.
“The scary part is if the Asian Longhorned Beetle—currently present in Clermont County—gets here, we will lose 25 percent of all our street trees,” Gamstetter says. “That’s a loss in environmental services of $2 million annually, and 33 percent of our park trees—a $1.1 million loss in environmental services annually.”
Local communities like Madisonville, Oakley, Bond Hill and Roselawn—neighborhoods on the eastern side of Cincinnati, where the Emerald Ash Borer first appeared—have already experienced significant canopy loss and are sitting at nine, 11, six and nine percent, respectively.
The losses are significant, but should the Asian Longhorned Beetle get past quarantine, Scott Beuerlein, Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden horticulturalist and Taking Root chair, says the repercussions will be massive.
The Goals
Planting 2 million trees isn’t enough to replace what we’re losing, but it’s a step in the right direction.
For Beuerlein, the overall goal is to continue the legacy of trees in this region.
Step back to the mid-1800s.
“This area was basically logged—the U.S. was basically logged—and people in Cincinnati founded the first American Forestry Association and held the first American Forestry Congress here,” Beuerlein says.
“And as a direct result of that, many of our parks got forested, Mt. Airy Forest was created, and our park boards and governing forces and commissions continued that legacy in planting trees, so we’re fortunate to have this and continue it.”
It was thanks to some “visionary, far-sighted people,” says Jody Grundy, development chair for Taking Root, who realized the need to start planting after “five miles on either side of the Ohio River was stripped of trees.”
In 1882, Cincinnati observed its first Arbor Day by planting six acres of Eden Park.
“Superintendent of Cincinnati schools, John Peaslee, closed the schools for the day and had all the school children come out with their families," Grundy says. “And 20,000 people came out and planted Eden Park.”
Now, 132 years later, community members are taking action to restore one of the world’s richest forested areas.
Earlier this month, 300 individuals from across the region came together at the Great Tree Summit 2014, where they broke into community-based action teams to start tackling the problem head-on.
“They’re going to start working on their own fairly autonomously and really get their ideas activated and into action,” Beuerlein says.
Some of the “big themes” addressed at the summit centered on education and connecting resources and needs.
“People have a sense of stewardship. Caring for the trees and having a sense of relationship with them is so important,” Grundy says. “But it needs to be a community-wide effort.”
One individual with a strong sense of stewardship is Andrea Torrice, award-winning documentary filmmaker and public television producer, who’s currently working on a project titled "Take Root," which aims to educate individuals about urban forests and the crises they face, and to inspire community members to take action.
“I think truth and reality is actually more fascinating than fiction,” Torrice says. “I was always interested in digging out—finding the truth and revealing truth—and helping to show that the world is more complex than one might think, in terms of both showing beauty and corruption.”
Torrice and Taking Root conveners have mutual goals, and those are to raise public awareness and initiate a response.
“Hopefully people will plant a tree,” Torrice says. “And the next time they walk by a tree, people will realize that besides it being beautiful, it also gives them a lot more than we think.”
The Benefits
Most individuals are familiar with the benefits of trees in that they provide oxygen, shade and homes for wildlife, to name a few; but not everyone realizes the immense impact trees have on physical, emotional and community health.
Take, for instance, the concept of “forest bathing.”
“Walking in a forest and literally bathing, as it were, in the energies of the trees—it’s a beautiful idea,” Grundy says. “But even more importantly now, there’s this study about what happens when people do walk in trees and amongst a forest, or even in a densely planted tree-lined neighborhood, as compared to just walking on concrete or asphalt without trees around.”
Results have indicated lowered blood pressures and stress levels, and boosted immune systems. Studies have also been conducted on outcomes from surgeries as they relate to the rooms in which patients are placed.
“What we’ve learned is that patients who have visual access to a window where they can look at and see trees have better healing outcomes than patients who are in an enclosed room with no windows and no visual connection to trees and to green,” Grundy says.
More interesting for Grundy—who, in addition to her work as development chair for Taking Root, is a psychotherapist and past board chair and president for the International Association for the Study of Dreams—is the connection between imagination and medicine as it pertains to trees.
“Most people have heard about visualization—how that can help people—but what we’re learning is that if we imagine something very positively, it can have virtually the same effect at a neurological level,” Grundy says.
“And we can see it’s having often the same positive effect through the imagination—through the image—as if we had the actual experience,” which explains why in some hospitals and post surgical areas, walls are being papered with images of trees, and results are indicating faster and better outcomes with regard to healing.
The image of the tree of life is one that everyone recognizes.
“It’s archetypal,” says Grundy, who’s studied and noticed trends of trees appearing in people’s visions—both at the waking level and at the dreaming level.
“If a tree is healthy and flourishing, it’s an image of health and well being—of nourishment and life support,” Grundy says. “Conversely, if we see a dead tree or a tree that’s broken down, it connotes illness. A cut down tree is an image of death.”
If people begin to pay attention to their experiences with trees in the community, Grundy says they’ll be more aware of and inclined to take action that promotes health, positivity and well-being.
“A city that is just filled with trees and greens—we sometimes do dream that—but we also dream barren streets,” Grundy says. “Well if we dream a barren street, what can we do about it? I like to say honor the dream by taking action. If a dream is presenting a problem and pointing at a direction of healing or help, follow that.” 

By Brittany York

Brittany York is a professor of English composition at the University of Cincinnati and a project manager for Charitable Words. She also edits the For Good section of SoapboxMedia.

Read more articles by Brittany York.

Brittany York is a freelance writer, adjunct English composition instructor and server at Orchids at Palm Court. She loves travel and photography. Keep up with Brittany on Instagram @brittbrittbrittbrittany.
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