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Caring for the Land and Serving People, Where They Live: Improving the Lives of People and Their Communities Through Urban Natural Resources Stewardship
Michael T. Rains

The US Forest Service has a direct and indirect role on about 80 percent of our nation’s forests: 850 million acres, including 103 million acres of urban forests where most Americans live. As chief forester for America’s forests, the Chief of the Forest Service has a conservation and restoration responsibility for a complex rural-to-urban land gradient to help ensure that forested landscapes, including those in urban areas, are healthy, sustainable, and provide the required green infrastructure that effectively links environmental health with community resiliency and stability. Today, about 83 percent of our population lives in cities and towns. Fully one-fourth of the nation’s counties are urbanized. How federal, state, and local governments and a wide range of other partnerships band together to ensure the proper care of America’s urban natural resources is a fundamental part of improving people’s lives. The slogan that illustrates the mission of the Forest Service is “caring for the land and serving people.” As we face new conservation demands along the entire rural-to-urban land gradient, it is more fitting now to think of this slogan as “caring for the land and serving people where they live.”

The Federal Role
The Forest Service is a dominant force in the conservation of America’s natural resources. We have a stewardship role in collaboration with others for management, protection, and use on all lands. We recognize that this role extends along a rural-to-urban land gradient, but only recently have we begun to direct this role to the urban landscapes. Recently at a national meeting, an agency leader described the initial agency urban and community forestry program.He said, “we used to describe it this way: trees are good, more are better.” We know it is a bit more complex than that, and now science-based information has enabled a much more effective urban natural resources program to surface and be deployed.

We now can calculate the specific dollar value of the services and benefits that urban trees and forests provide in terms of energy savings, reducing greenhouse gases, mitigating floods, and improving people’s health and safety. Indeed, over the past 20 years, Forest Service research has been a leader in understanding and maximizing the social, economic, and environmental services and benefits that urban trees and forests provide. The next 10 years will build upon this foundation by understanding and building markets and creating jobs for the goods that can come from the urban forest, including food, fiber, and building materials. The Forest Service is now establishing a network of urban field stations to bring forest stewardship capacity closer to where people live. From the iconic Baltimore Ecosystem Study, to a research work unit just outside of Chicago, to a laboratory at Ft. Totten (Queens, New York City), to the new Philadelphia Field Station, and other areas including San Juan, Los Angeles, and Seattle, we are bringing science-based information to city governments and other practitioners so they can effectively balance the health and sustainability of their urban forests with community needs.

The Forest Service fully understands the focus of caring for the land where most people live, going back to the maxim of our first Chief, Gifford Pinchot, when he described “the greatest good for the greatest number for the longest time.” Urban natural resources stewardship may address this maxim more completely than any other conservation imperative the agency embraces.
Installation of a rain garden in Bridgeport, CT. Courtesy UConn CLEAR

A Conservation Legacy Event
About two years ago, federal departments and agencies launched an initiative to help revitalize urban waters and the communities that surround them. This Urban Waters Federal Partnership is the joint role of 13 federal departments and groups, including the USDA and Forest Service. The Partnership enables all involved “to band together, share resources, and avoid duplication.” Seven pilot projects have been named and 11 new sites are being added. In the Forest Service, the Urban Waters Federal Partnership was designated as one of the top 10 Public-Private Partnerships. This initiative, a “Conservation Legacy Event,” helps address landscape-scale conservation in a more cohesive manner. Philadelphia will be one of the new sites selected. Baltimore (Patapsco River), New York City (the Bronx and Harlem Rivers), Northwest Indiana (Lake Michigan/Little Calumet River), and Washington, DC (Anacostia River) are four of the original pilot projects in the Northeast and Midwest regions. This partnership, combined with the infrastructure of the Philadelphia Field Station, as an example, will enable a much more comprehensive approach to contemporary conservation now and in the future.

In 2012, Hurricane Sandy ripped through the Northeast, causing damage so severe as to be almost indescribable. The Obama administration provided $50 billion to help homeowners, businesses, and government recover. Although this funding is critically important, it reacts to an event. More proactive efforts are needed. For example, with a changing climate, weather events are becoming extreme and their frequency is increasing. Accordingly, the importance of green infrastructure to buffer and filter these extremes is paramount.

Right after Hurricane Sandy, some homeowners had perfectly healthy trees cut down for fear they might fall, not realizing that trees in a healthy urban forest reduce water runoff, filter effects against winds, and provide a positive buffer. In addition, in low-level areas, sustaining wetlands as a first response against water surges is extremely effective.

Balance is important. If we recognize that everything is connected, then we must also acknowledge that an inadequate green infrastructure of trees and forests and forest ecosystems makes us too vulnerable, unnecessarily so, to the effects of events such as Hurricane Sandy. In the western part of our country, we see this all too frequently with catastrophic fires. The principle is the same here. Good management of landscapes along the rural-to-urban gradient enables our ability to address weather or weather-related events. The capacity developed by the Forest Service to deliver leading- edge science and new technology, combined with initiatives such as the Urban Waters Federal Partnership, represent a cost-effective step to enable the people we serve, where they live, to be much better prepared and resilient.

Growth and Loss of Open Space
One of the major threats facing our natural resources is the loss of open space occurring through forest fragmentation, urban sprawl, and even development within cities. Cities and towns are expanding, stretching their perimeters, taking in more and more people and swallowing up more and more land.

While growth may be inevitable, smart growth should be the guiding principle if we are interested in the sustainability of our natural resources and their linkage to the protection of lives and property. Again, we need to strike a balance. This notion may be particularly significant in our country, where people are becoming more disconnected from nature and natural resources management. If we take better care of what we have, in this case our urban natural resources, we can help mitigate the threats to other natural resources while creating vibrant urban areas.

FS Ranger Some conclude that the best way to reduce urban sprawl and forest fragmentation is to make cities and towns more livable. The logic behind this idea is that for the most part, people live where they want. Many really enjoy living in a big city. For others, what they want may be found much further from the central city: affordability and good schools with healthy and accessible natural resources.

However, not everyone has a choice. Many poor or low-income people may live in cities not because they choose to, but for lack of options about where to live or to school their children. This is one of the key reasons why we must strive to maintain high quality cities—so those with less choice in our society also have quality places in which to live, work, and raise their families.

Trees and urban natural resources can play a critical role in providing high quality places for everyone, thereby reducing the development pressures at the urban fringe and improving equity in neighborhood quality. This may sound like an oversimplification. How do trees provide safe communities and good schools? In fact, research indicates the important role that trees and urban natural resources play in creating healthy places for people to live and has found linkages with better school performance and reduced crime rates. The body of research is becoming too large to ignore.Healthy urban natural resources support healthy urban places and people.

Vibrant Cities
In 2010, the chief forester for America’s forests called for a vision to better address the agency role in the urban part of the land gradient. To this end, the New York Restoration Project, acting as a coordinator, convened 25 of the best leaders throughout the country in urban natural resources stewardship. The results of their work, Vibrant Cities and Urban Forests: A National Call to Action recognized that cities are human ecosystems that create great potential for urban forests and green infrastructure to improve life in urban areas. Further, this green infrastructure helps manage storm water, remove pollutants, conserve energy, and reduce erosion and provides other cost-effective and environmentally sustainable services. Vibrant Cities is a benchmark for federal, state, and local governments, and a wide range of partners, to band together to comprehensively care for the land and serve people, where they live. Combining this call to action with insightful leaders and adding capacity such as the units in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York City and initiatives such as the Urban Waters Federal Partnership can ensure that landscapes throughout the rural to- urban land gradient across America are used wisely now and in the future for the benefit of our society.

Conclusion
More than 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas. As urban development continues to expand over the landscape, the relationship between urban growth, urban influence, and natural resources will become even more critical. The Forest Service has an important role in keeping this relationship in balance through stewardship activities along the rural-to-urban land gradient. Keeping cities vibrant through sound stewardship of urban natural resources links environmental health with community well-being. A coalition of interests can shape an effective way to address specific federal, state, and local contributions to improve urban areas and livability within these areas. The Forest Service is a key contributor to the success of this strategy.

The involvement of people in the stewardship of trees and forests where they live not only will have a direct positive influence on the quality of life and the economies of our cities and towns, it can also influence more positive perceptions and behaviors concerning the benefits of trees, forests, and forest ecosystems throughout our land. This, in turn, allows all lands and their forests to be available and ready to buffer and filter the effects of nature, even catastrophic events associated with fire, winds, and floods. As Vibrant Cities and Urban Forests: A National Call to Action states, “...at the root of every vibrant city is an urban forest.”

Michael T. Rains is Director of the US Forest Service Northern Research Station, Research and Development, and Acting Director of the Forest Products Laboratory.
 
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