Cultivating Gresham's urban forests by growing local canopies
Last summer a group of Gresham neighbors rallied to save a stand of trees in their local arboretum that were floundering in the historic heat.
It was a cluster of native trees planted by volunteers a few years back in the east corner of Gradin Sports Community Park — which also has a trail and several significant species of trees. When Jim Buck, chair of the Gresham Urban Forestry Subcommittee, discovered the trees were dying, he put out a call for help on social media.
"Within a day of posting I had a family adopted each one of those trees," Buck said with a smile. "They put labels with their names by the trees, and made sure to water them throughout the summer."
"Now those trees are thriving," he added.
That is the mindset the city of Gresham is hoping to foster, not only during a milestone 150th Arbor Day, but throughout the entire year. Though Gresham proudly maintains its status as a "Tree City, USA," there is lots of work that needs to be done to support a tree canopy — think any area that is covered by a tree's shade — that has been shrinking in recent years.
"The city is committed to preserving and expanding tree canopy with mature healthy long-lived trees," Tina Nunez-Osterink, Gresham's natural resources and parks planner.
The benefits are numerous. Trees create a third of the oxygen we breathe, sequester carbon, store stormwater and reduce heat. They also offer shade in the summer, and increase the general aesthetic of the city.
But despite valiant efforts from volunteers, the city is steadily losing trees every year. Population density leaves less room for trees, climate change and last year's heat wave killed thousands of trees, and the threat of wildfires make people more cautious about having trees up close to their homes.
People like Buck hope to curb that trend.
"We can make green infrastructure in the city a priority," he said.
Buck is a tree wonk in the best kind of way. His eyes light up when sharing stories of the many significant trees across the city — he has his eye on an official designation for an evergreen magnolia tree along Powell Boulevard — and he could talk about the benefits of a robust urban canopy for days.
"I have had an affinity for them since I was a kid," Buck said. "I feel more comfortable in a forest than any other setting."
Buck, semi-retired, has served on the Urban Forestry Subcommittee for more than 12 years — a group of like-minded volunteers that guide Gresham in all things trees. That group is one of many who have taken on the brunt of planting and protecting trees across the city, and the hope is to share that passion on Arbor Day and beyond.
"There is new research that trees, even of different species, support each other underground with their root systems," he said. "That is a lesson I think we could all share in."
There are some trouble neighborhoods when it comes to tree canopy that Gresham has identified.
While many neighborhoods sit in close proximity to densely forested buttes, with tree canopy percentages greater than 60%, there are other Gresham neighborhoods defined by only a few scattered stands of tall Douglas fir. Neighborhoods in the north, west and central parts of the city have few mature trees, and only a 15% canopy coverage.
The city is focusing on the Rockwood, North Gresham, Central City and Hogan Cedars neighborhoods when it comes to trees.
Part of moving forward is collecting better data. Gresham is working with CAPA Strategies, LLC, to develop a spatial mapping tool to help create meaningful tree canopies — that data is expected to be complete this summer.
"That data helps preserve and expand Gresham's urban forest as we work collectively to become a more livable and climate resilient community," Nunez-Osterink said.
And last year the Urban Forestry Subcommittee launched a Neighborhood Tree Plan outreach effort to further increase the number of trees by having community members walk and see where trees could be added. It also encourages folks to plant their own trees, as 80% of land in Gresham is private. There could be more trees in parks, school campuses, church prosperities, or large industrial spaces.
"Part of having a sustainable and healthy environment and community is having a similarly healthy tree system," said Gresham City Manager Nina Vetter.
One of the early successes was a large group of volunteers from the Gresham Butte Neighborhood planting 900 trees on the eponymous butte through a grant.
"I would love to see citizen groups and volunteer events expanded to foster growth beyond Arbor Month," Buck said. "We need more plantings in the spring and fall."
Many of these efforts are attempting to improve what is already a decent situation. Gresham has been designated a Tree City USA by the National Arbor Day Foundation, an honor that signifies how seriously the city takes protecting its trees.
But there is always room for improvement. Gresham is only certified at the basic level, and Buck would love to see the city heralded for achieving even more trees.
"(The Urban Forestry Subcommittee) believes the City Council needs to be far more energetic on tree preservation," Buck said. "We need to increase our tree canopy — we are losing it, not gaining."
Thursday morning, April 14, enthusiastic fourth graders at Davis Elementary helped plant seven new trees on their campus.
The event, which was led by a bevy of stakeholders and public leaders, was all about those kids. They got to dig into the ground with shovels, learn about different types of trees, visit stations about bees, bulbs and more, and take stewardship of the new trees that will eventually tower over their school.
"Arbor Day is about celebrating and planting trees," Nunez-Osterink said.
One young boy at the Davis Elementary event said it best — "I love trees!"
That is the mindset the Gresham Urban Forestry Subcommittee wants to foster throughout the city. The more people who volunteer, find places for trees on their own properties, and look out for the well-being of existing trees will help expand the local canopy.
Buck has suggested increasing the size of the Urban Forestry Subcommittee, reinvigorating the number of significant trees being recognized, and having Gresham hire an official arborist.
There are some positive steps being taken. East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District created a $50,000 grant to plant trees in Rockwood to address urban heat islands. Already Multnomah County, the city of Gresham, and Friends of Trees have planted 400 trees in Rockwood, with another 100 planned in the coming year.
And with that new data, the hope is it can be used to further spur improvements.
"Together we can make a real difference," Buck said. "And plant lots more trees."
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