Louisville's Trees

Pursuing an ambitious mission to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends has led The Nature Conservancy to urban areas, where a quarter of the nation’s trees and 83 percent of the human population reside. In fact, the Conservancy’s Healthy Trees, Healthy Planet Initiative was launched for this reason and has recently taken an interest in Kentucky’s largest city.

The Initiative’s director, Bill Toomey, speaks about the program and answers the question, “Why Louisville?”

Why is the Conservancy stepping up efforts to protect urban forests?

Bill Toomey:

Nearly a quarter of our nation’s trees are in urban parks, along streets and in our backyards. When healthy, these trees and forests serve as a critical component of a city’s natural infrastructure and are essential to healthy communities – producing oxygen, purifying air and drinking water, harboring wildlife, and providing social and health benefits to people across the country.

Nationally, urban forests contain about 3.8 billion trees with an estimated value of $2.4 trillion. As a result, urban forests are not only key to human health, but to economic prosperity as well.

What represents the biggest threat to our nation’s forests?

Bill Toomey:

One of the most serious threats to all forests is from non-native insects and diseases. These invaders can remove entire species of trees from our forests and neighborhoods. For example, the Emerald Ash Borer, which has been identified in Kentucky, has killed 60 million ash trees in 22 states and two Canadian provinces.

The health of urban forests is linked to the health of our natural forests as cities have historically been the introduction point for non-native forest insects and diseases. With this in mind, we are building local capacity in urban areas to monitor existing trees and care for newly planted trees – all of which represent one of society’s most significant capital investments. The result is more resilient and sustainable cities and healthier trees and forests located outside of urban areas.

Is that what led you to Kentucky?

Bill Toomey:

There are many factors in play when deciding where to take Healthy Trees, Healthy Cities. We inform those decisions based in part on information that identifies the cities as the highest risk for infestation, usually cities having major ports or transportation and transfer hubs.

We’re also going where we’ve been invited. That is the case in Kentucky. Working in Kentucky is also appropriate because Louisville’s ailing tree canopy has earned it the distinction of being the second hottest city in the nation.

Regardless of how they’ve been identified, it is our hope that going deep in these places will provide a framework for making the program adoptable anywhere in the nation.

What approach do you take in these cities?

Bill Toomey:

The Vision for Healthy Trees, Healthy Cities is to “Protect the health of our nation’s trees and forests and the well-being of communities by creating a culture of stewardship that engages people in the planting, care and stewardship of urban trees and forests.”

We pursue this vision through a suite of strategies and actions designed to improve the long-term health of urban forests and address the threat of non-native tree pests. This includes informing municipal tree-planting efforts, assessing the vulnerability of urban trees to potential threats, developing educational and training materials and tools for monitoring work taking place in and around cities, and raising public awareness about the importance of having vibrant and healthy urban forests for generations to come. We engage corporate, community members and youth volunteers in all of these efforts.

What can a community do to develop a healthy tree canopy?

Bill Toomey:

A healthy urban forest results from several key actions, including:

- The forest consists of a wide diversity of tree species.
- There is an active tree planting and tree stewardship program in place.
- A commitment exists for supporting the long-term care and maintenance of the community’s urban forests and green spaces.
- The community plants the “right trees in the right place” to accomplish environmental and societal benefits and minimize interference with utilities and other infrastructure.
- There is an organization or partnership charged with raising awareness for the many benefits provided by trees in an effort to generate long-term support for planting and maintaining a city’s trees.

What's next for Louisville?

Bill Toomey:

Like in other cities, we will work with local partners to identify opportunities and needs. It is our hope that by working in partnership with the City, and with non-profit and community partners, we will successfully enhance Louisville’s urban forest so that it will be able to benefit the health and prosperity of its residents. Already, we’ve met local partners eager to work with the Conservancy now that they have opened an office in Louisville. There is a lot of opportunity to make a real difference.


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