It all started with a tree climbing tournament in August of 2012.
That’s when Chris O’Bryan, co-owner of Limbwalker Tree Service, traveled to Portland, Ore., to attend the International Tree Climbing Competition.
Among the food trucks at the arbor fair, O’Bryan discovered a booth for Friends of Trees, a local nonprofit dedicated to planting trees in urban environments. O’Bryan returned home to Louisville inspired to start his own tree-planting organization, Love Louisville Trees.
An urgent need for trees
O’Bryan, who earned a master’s degree in forestry economics from Clemson University, is passionate about trees. He begins talking about the urgent need to plant before we set down our coffees.
Specifically, O’Bryan refers to a study conducted by Brian Stone, director of Georgia Tech’s Urban Climate Lab, and author of “The City and the Coming Climate: Climate Change in the Places We Live.” According to Stone, Louisville is heating up faster than all of the 50 cities in his study, due in large part to the lack of tree canopy.
Metro Mayor Greg Fischer took Stone’s data to heart when he formed the Tree Advisory Commission. The commission serves as an advisory group of volunteers and city employees appointed to address the tree canopy and heat island issues of downtown Louisville.
At first O’Bryan was optimistic about this turn of events, but he quickly realized the tree commission could not do enough to solve the problem. Trees can only be planted in the spring and the fall, and the city cannot hire enough seasonal workers to meet the high demand for planting trees.
In Portland, Ore., Friends of Trees addresses this problem with a creative solution: train home owners and volunteers to become “citizen foresters.” This is exactly what O’Bryan has done through Love Louisville Trees.
Let’s do this
In August 2012, O’Bryan took the Love Louisville Trees brand name and logo to the Tree Advisory Commission in hopes of creating a partnership. It seemed like a logical affiliation; however, the tree commission was not interested.
“There are people on the tree commission who support us greatly,” O’Bryan says. “There are people on the tree commission who are completely opposed to what we’re doing. I mean vehemently opposed.”
But he wasn’t deterred.
O’Bryan next approached Louisville Grows, a small nonprofit based in the Portland neighborhood of west Louisville. Originally, the board rejected the project because their primary focus was on community gardens.
Surprisingly, six months later, Louisville Grows Executive Director Valerie Magnuson contacted O’Bryan about collaborating on the project. Since then, the Louisville Grows board had changed its mission to include urban agriculture, urban forestry and environmental education.
Both O’Bryan and Magnuson credit city arborist Mark White for his help in obtaining planting permits. White, a Shawnee Park resident, has been a friend of the project from the beginning.
Planting trees: a two-step process
O’Bryan has a holistic approach to solving Louisville’s tree problems. First, he believes we must plant more trees. That’s a no-brainer. Second, we need to stop removing so many trees.
O’Bryan wrote his master’s thesis on the tree service industry. Through his research he discovered most tree work is conducted on the black market. Tree services, according to O’Bryan, can afford to pass along lower costs to their clients because they pay their temporary staff low wages in cash under the table and offer no employee benefits.
These companies, he tells me, have no interest in longevity. “They’re always thinking about tomorrow, which means they don’t do any training, they don’t know how to prune trees, they don’t know how to plant trees. The only thing they really know how to do is remove trees.”
He turns then from discussing tree removal to the purpose of Love Louisville Trees: planting trees in urban neighborhoods such as Portland, where the canopy has decreased to 10 percent.
O’Bryan breaks this down into economics: “To plant the tree and care for it for one year, it’s $1,000.” He sees this $1,000 per tree as an investment in the future. In 20 years, the trees we plant today will provide Louisville with a renewed canopy, significantly lowering the heat island effects.
As for collaborating with Louisville Grows, O’Bryan is excited. “They’re new, they’re young, they have a lot of enthusiasm. In 10-20 years, those are going to be the people in power in Louisville. They have an interest in seeing that we do it correctly.”
Love Louisville Trees had its pilot planting last Saturday, Nov. 16, in the Portland neighborhood. O’Bryan realized that many Portland residents don’t have a lot of disposable income, so he was determined to keep expenses as low as possible. Part of this he accomplished by teaching good cultural practices, such as mulching and pruning at the beginning of the planting.
O’Bryan explains, “It turns out that the good cultural practices in planting are good from a cost perspective. They minimize future upkeep.”
Louisville Grows Executive Director Magnuson canvassed the Portland neighborhood, letting residents know they had free trees to plant. “We were originally going to charge $35 per tree,” Magnuson tells me, “and then Habitat for Humanity offered to sponsor all the trees for the neighborhood.” Add this to the nine trees donated by the Tree Advisory Commission and the $40,000 Love Louisville Trees received from an MSD grant, and the first planting of 160 trees was fully funded.
In exchange for a free tree, Magnuson asked that residents be available on Saturday to help plant the tree and guarantee they would maintain the tree for the first three years.
“We had a really long conversation with everyone who answered the door,” Magnuson explains, telling me she and her volunteers had extensive conversations with residents about choosing the right tree for their property. “A lot of people are really excited. We have 90 people who signed up.”
Some of the trees will go in easements, but many are going in yards. Some will be planted on school campuses and others on industrial land.
Love Louisville Trees provided each resident who chose a tree with written instructions for its care and maintenance. Whenever the easement or yard was big enough, Magnuson and her crew encouraged the residents to choose a bigger tree, such as an oak or a tulip poplar, because larger trees have a bigger impact on the heat island effect. “The more canopy, the more coverage you can have shading the street.”
For Magnuson, a Portland resident, this effects her personally. “In front of my house in Portland, we’re planting a ginkgo because I have a pretty wide easement. I’m super excited.”
Teach a man to plant
O’Bryan developed a Citizen Forester training program to create a volunteer workforce for biannual Love Louisville Tree plantings and also for the educational benefits of the community. Cities such as Los Angeles, Boston, and Tulsa have active Citizen Forester programs that O’Bryan emulated.
O’Bryan likes the model of a community tree planting program because it educates and trains people how to care for the trees in their community, their neighborhood and on their own property. And the people he trains, he believes, will train other people.
“There’s a lot of power in that. With just a little organization, you get a lot done.”
“And,” he adds, “it turns out, planting trees is something everyone wants to do because then you get to drive past that tree for years and say, ‘I planted that tree.’ It’s an investment that they feel like they made in their city. People don’t mind donating their time to do that.”
The organization has conducted two citizen forester trainings, attracting 42 volunteers. All but two of the foresters attended the Saturday planting and divided into groups to train the 194 volunteers and residents who showed up for the event. O’Bryan and Sarah Wolff, Olmsted Parks Conservancy volunteer-coordinator and Louisville Grows board member, conducted the two day-long trainings.
Among the citizen foresters, Magnuson tells me they have a couple of arborists and several master gardeners, but the rest, she calls really motivated amateurs. The organization is planning two more trainings, one in January and one in February, to prepare for the spring planting. A neighborhood site and date have yet to be chosen.
For the first planting this past Saturday, Magnuson says they had parents, students and teachers from both Western Middle and J. B. Atkinson Middle School help with the work. Atkinson principal Stephanie Nutter has even become a citizen forester. Both middle school campuses received trees, as did St. John’s Cemetery, and several streets surrounding the schools and cemetery.
“I can’t believe it. We have the power to change this one little landscape,” Magnuson says. “It really blows my mind how many people have gotten behind this project from all over Louisville.”
While 194 volunteers is a great turn-out for a pilot event, O’Bryan isn’t resting on any laurels. “We need more. I want this to be something that people love and feel a part of. I want it to be everyone’s. I want people to say that this is a good thing in Louisville. I want them to be proud of it.”
For information regarding upcoming Citizen Forester trainings and the spring planting plans, visit the Love Louisville Trees Facebook page.