Lessons Learned in Pennsylvania

By Keith McAleer  

It was a pleasure to represent Tree Davis at this year’s Partners in Community Forestry National Conference in Pittsburgh (a big thank you to California ReLeaf for making my attendance possible!).  The annual Partners conference is a unique opportunity for non-profits, arborists, public agencies, scientists and other tree professionals to come together to network, collaborate, and learn about new research and best practices to bring home to help build more nature into our cities.


I had never been to Pittsburgh before, and was delighted by its beautiful fall color, mountains, rivers and rich history.  The downtown mix of new modern architecture and skyscrapers mixed with old colonial brick created a striking skyline, and made for an interesting walk.  The downtown is surrounded by rivers creating a peninsula feel similar to Manhattan or Vancouver, BC.  At the western end of downtown, the Monongahela river (one of the few rivers in the world that flows north) and the Allegheny river meet to form the mighty Ohio, creating a triangular land mass that locals refer to affectionately as “The Point”.  Art is abundant and the city is bustling with young people working to build careers.  Most importantly (for us tree lovers), there are many young trees planted along the rivers and in the downtown.  What a great place for a tree conference!


I soon found out more about how some of this new tree planting came to be.  In one of the most memorable presentations of the conference, Tree Pittsburgh, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, and Davey Resource Group presented their Urban Forest Master Plan for Pittsburgh.  Their plan really showcased how building partnerships between non-profits and public agencies at the local, regional, and statewide level can produce an outcome that no one group could have ever achieved on its own.   It was refreshing to see a community plan for trees at all levels of government, since ultimately what one community does, will affect its neighbor and vice versa.  So, Pittsburgh has a great tree plan.  But how did the truth look on the ground?


After a busy morning on Day 1 of the conference, attendees were able to choose to take a tour to see the trees (and other sights) in Pittsburgh.  I chose the bike tour and was not disappointed.  We saw newly planted oak and maples along the riverside – many of them planted in formerly industrial areas that were previously filled of weeds.  We also bicycled past the historical maintained and still well-used Duquesne incline, an inclined railroad (or funicular), one of two left in Pittsburgh.  (We learned that there used to be dozens, and this was a common way to commute in Pittsburgh’s more industrial past).   The highlight was seeing the 20,000th tree planted by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy’s Tree Vitalize program which started in 2008.  Twenty thousand trees in five years is an amazing accomplishment.  Apparently, the 20,000th tree, a swamp white oak, weighed about 6,000 pounds when it was planted!   It looks like building an Urban Forest Master Plan and involving many partners looked good on the ground as well.


Though, some of us tree lovers wouldn’t like to admit it, politics inevitably is a part of building stronger communities with trees.  The Partners Conference had especially relevant timing with regard to this, as Tuesday was Election Day.  The newly elected mayor of Pittsburgh was on the schedule to speak, and my first thought was What if he wouldn’t have won the election last night…would the other guy be speaking instead?  I soon found out, that the new mayor, Bill Peduto, was a speaker reliable as any, since he won the election the previous night with 85% of the vote!  Not bad for a non-incumbent.  Mayor Peduto showed his dedication to trees and urban forestry by speaking to an audience of tree lovers on no more than 2 hours of sleep.  He struck me as a mayor that matched the young, innovative, environmentally conscious Pittsburgh I was experiencing.  At one point he said that Pittsburgh used to be the “Seattle” of the US and that he is ready for Pittsburgh to again be thought a hub for artists, inventors, innovators, and environmentalism.


On Day 2, State Senator Jim Ferlo addressed the tree congress.  He mirrored Mayor Peduto’s optimism about the future outlook of the state, but also gave a dire warning about the impact that hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is having in Pennsylvania.  As you can see on this map of Pennsylvania fracking, Pittsburgh is essentially surrounded by fracking.  Even if Pittsburghers work hard to build a sustainable city within the city limits, there are environmental challenges outside the borders.  This seemed like more evidence that it is critical that local, regional, and statewide environmental groups work together to achieve sustainability and a better environment.


One of my favorite presentations on Day 2 was Dr. William Sullivan’s Presentation Trees and Human Health.  Most of us seem to have an innate feeling that “Trees are Good”, and we in the urban forestry field spend a lot of time talking about the benefits of trees for our environment, but what about the effect of trees on our mood and happiness?  Dr. Sullivan presented decades of research showing that trees have the power to help us heal, work together, and be happy.  In one of his most recent studies, Dr. Sullivan stressed subjects out by making them do subtraction problems continuously for 5 minutes (that does sound stressful!).  Dr. Sullivan measured the subject’s cortisol levels (the stress regulating hormone) before and after the 5 minutes.  He found that subjects did indeed have higher cortisol levels after 5 minutes of subtraction indicating that they were more stressed.  Afterward, he showed some subjects images of barren, concrete landscapes, and some landscapes with a few trees, and some landscapes with many trees.  What did he find?  Well, he found that the subjects who viewed landscapes with more trees had lower levels of cortisol than subjects who viewed landscapes with less trees meaning that just looking at trees can help us regulate cortisol and be less stressed.  Amazing!!!


I learned a lot in Pittsburgh.  I am leaving out endless useful information about social media methods, fundraiser best practices, removing weeds with sheep (really!), and the beautiful riverboat ride that allowed attendees to make more connections and help us see what we do from another perspective.  As one might expect, urban forestry is actually quite different in Iowa and Georgia than it is in Davis.  Learning about different perspectives and challenges helped me understand that planting trees and building community doesn’t end at the city limits and that we are all essentially in this together.  I hope that other attendees felt the same way, and that we can continue to build a network in our own cities, states, country, and world to plan for a better environment in the future.  If there is anything that can bring us all together to make a happier, healthier, world, it’s the power of trees.

Keith McAleer is the Executive Director of Tree Davis, a California ReLeaf Network member.