Portland abruptly slams door on 'Friends of Trees'
Reed neighborhood and former Woodstock resident Sherry Hall acquired a love of trees and the natural environment at an early age.
Her parents lived near S.E. 119th and Division Street where then there were open spaces, cherry trees, and vacant lots. "I loved climbing trees, picking cherries and sitting in the lots, hunting for 4 leaf clovers." She also went camping frequently with her family.
Her parents later moved to a 20-acre farm in Oregon City, a place that she enjoyed later with her own two sons. When she moved to Woodstock, it was striking to her that there were no trees on the boulevard.
One day in the 1980s, when visiting her parents in Oregon City, her father told her he was going to cut down all of the evergreen trees on their property. "I was horrified," she recalls. "He said they were worth $35,000 [if logged]."
Plantings began in Woodstock
So when the nonprofit Friends of Trees was founded in 1989, Hall joyfully organized the first FOT neighborhood street tree planting in the city with her Woodstock neighbor at the time, Terry Griffiths.
The Woodstock Neighborhood Association partnered with Friends of Trees on Saturday, November 11th, 1989, when 70 volunteers gathered to plant 21 Chanticleer ornamental pear trees along the boulevard. A post-planting potluck lunch became a tradition, for many more years to come. Since that first planting, the nonprofit has planted over 870,000 trees and native shrubs in the Portland-Vancouver, Salem, and Eugene-Springfield metropolitan areas.
This year in April, Sherry Hall heard that the Friends of Trees contract with the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services was ending. She felt the same sinking feeling as when her father said he would cut down all his trees. That night, having a nightmare about a world with a fast disappearing tree canopy awoke her with a jolt.
"I knew after that dream that I would make another contribution from my retirement fund to Friends of Trees. I was very concerned that they would go away. I called them and they said they may do a planting in the fall, but at present their future regarding any partnership with the City of Portland to plant street and yard trees is uncertain."
City ends relationship
Then on Thursday, July 1, the bad news became public. The city contract made in 2008 with Friends of Trees had expired, and the city says it has no plans to renew it. The contract had provided funds and planting permits for an average of 2,800 trees a year. Since 2008, 40,000 trees have been added to Portland neighborhoods, primarily in parking strips, but also with trees planted in yards.
During those 14 years, FOT community tree plantings involved thousands of volunteers — families, friends, neighbors, churches and businesses — in what were frequently festive and educational "getting to know one another" events. And, in some neighborhoods, plantings were led by at-risk youth, in environmental leadership training.
Now with global news of climate change, and the shrinking of the tree canopy in some Portland neighborhoods, the City of Portland has ended its relationship with Friends of Trees, and has decided to "realign" its two Bureaus dealing with trees — Parks & Recreation, and the Bureau of Environmental Services.
A joint statement from the two Bureaus claims they plan to "begin planting and caring for trees more efficiently, in line with the City's 2018 report on tree canopy." That 2018 report recommended the city "conduct culturally-specific outreach and education for communities of color, immigrants, and refugee communities, to promote participation in planting."
The joint statement continues, "Both Bureaus have come to an understanding and scoping of work that we believe will not only be more effective, but will ultimately result in more trees, larger tree canopy, and increased greening of our city."
Yashar Vasef, Executive Director of Friends of Trees, tells THE BEE that his organization has already been specifically working in areas that suffer from tree canopy loss — and they have been working with environmental nonprofit organizations run by people of color to increase environmental stewardship in their communities.
"We have always been committed to building community through tree plantings," Vasef says. "Having space to meet strangers who can become friends, that's what we really believe in."
The numerous Friends of Trees plantings in Inner Southeast Portland over the years have brought many people together in a "community of caring" for the environment. It remains to be seen if and how this new turn of events involving the various city Bureaus can increase Portland's tree canopy and continue to foster community.
"Friends of Trees" still planting
Kathy Armstrong, the Friends of Trees Development and Communications Director, confirms to THE BEE, "Contributions are welcome. They support our planting and natural area restoration events throughout the region — which are continuing and growing, thanks to numerous other municipal partners. That includes a new community tree planting project next season in Northeast Portland in partnership with local organizations including Verde, Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, and Cully Air Action."
Pamplin Media news partner Oregon Public Broadcasting has examined public records, emails, and other documents, in search of the reason for this surprising turn of events. They conclude that it mostly appears to be the result of a rivalry between two City Bureaus. "Critics of the Commission system [of Portland's city government] say it discourages collaboration and encourages Commissioners to prioritize their [own] Bureaus over broader city needs. The fight over trees offers a case study, in which two Portland Bureaus — the Bureau of Environmental Services, and the Bureau of Parks & Recreation — are competing for the power that comes with managing trees. The end result appears to be fewer trees being planted and cared for in the coming years, even as temperatures continue to rise." That Commission form of government could be changed by Portlanders in the upcoming November election. For OPB's full story on this subject, go online here — tinyurl.com/5n6ruwdj
For more information on Friends of Trees, or to make a donation to this still very active tree-planting nonprofit, go online to — www.friendsoftrees.org
You can also mail a check, if you prefer — to Friends of Trees, 3117 N.E. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Portland, 97212.
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