Natural Climate Solutions: A Win-Win Solution for Our Environment and Our Economy

Coastal and oyster restoration along the coast of Rhode Island Photo Credit: TNC

There is growing recognition in the United States that the actions required to spare us from the worst impacts of climate change can also serve as a powerful engine for job creation and economic recovery. The economic benefits of decarbonizing our energy and transportation sectors are relatively clear – large-scale efforts to install wind turbines and solar arrays, build electric vehicle charging stations and cap leaking gas wells will requires a large workforce, potentially creating employment opportunities for hundreds of thousands of Americans.

Natural Climate Solutions — conservation, restoration and improved land management strategies that remove carbon dioxide from the air – can also play a large role in tackling climate change. Indeed, natural and working lands have the potential to reduce overall emissions in the United States by up to 30 percent. Like other climate solutions, these actions can also serve as a powerful mechanism for restoring our economy by creating jobs, generating new sources of income for farm and forest owners and managers, and providing a wide range of economic benefits to underserved and frontline communities across America.

The Blaney family farm in Albany, Ohio. Photo Credit: Alex Snyder/TNC

In addition to the direct economic benefits of Natural Climate Solutions, they provide significant indirect economic benefits by also protecting water quality, improving soil health, increasing resilience to floods and drought and providing crucial habitat for wildlife. When one considers the significant benefits that Natural Climate Solutions provide to people and nature, it is clear that they are a win-win solution for our environment and our economy.

The U.S. Nature4Climate coalition has reviewed reports, case studies, and research about the economic value of Nature Climate Solutions. We hope the collective weight of this information will increase public awareness of the numerous benefits of Natural Climate Solutions, elevating these solutions as an integral part of the overall strategy to combat climate change and restore our economy. Over the next month, U.S. Nature4Climate and our coalition partners will highlight the potential of Natural Climate Solutions to help spur an equitable and robust economic recovery in the United States.

Our campaign is themed around the following facts:

  • Investment in Natural Climate Solutions creates jobs: Planting trees in both rural and urban areas helps create good new jobs while pulling carbon out of the air; these projects also help stimulate the outdoor recreation economy. For example, investing $4-4.5 billion dollars in tree planting can create up to 150,000 jobs. Environmental restoration programs focused on restoring coastal, forest and grassland ecosystems can create up to 40 jobs for each million dollars invested.  
  • Natural Climate Solutions can serve as a mechanism for advancing equity, particularly in urban communities:  Urban forestry programs are a particularly powerful force for reducing inequality in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.  Recent research indicates widespread inequality in tree cover between low-income and high-income neighborhoods. A program to plant 31.4 million urban trees a year can create nearly 230,000 new jobs. Urban trees can also reduce home energy costs up to 7%, while also reducing health care costs.
  • Natural Climate Solutions provide new sources of income for owners and managers of farms and forests:  Farmers and foresters across America want to be a part of the solution to climate change – and in many cases, already are.  Adoption of soil health practices have been proven to increase income and lower costs for farmers over time. Robust and credible carbon markets can also provide a new source of income for farmers and forest owners, while helping companies meet ambitious sustainability goals.

Please visit our new campaign page,, and the U.S. Nature4Climate blog to learn more about the powerful role Natural Climate Solutions can play in our economic recovery.

Nathan Henry is the Project Manager for U.S. Nature4Climate.

Healthy Salt Marshes Harbor Rich Biodiversity—and Help Fight Climate Change

New Jersey salt marsh. Photo Credit: Fishhawk_Flickr

Along temperate coasts, the effects of climate change—including sea-level rise, erosion, and more frequent and stronger storms—are threatening a vital habitat that offers one of the best natural defenses against those perils.

Salt marshes are low-lying ecosystems characterized by salt-tolerant shrubs, herbs, and grasses that not only protect coastal communities but also provide vital habitat for fish, birds, invertebrates, bivalves, and other wildlife. In the United States alone, up to 75% of commercially important marine species, including shrimp, crabs, and finfish, rely on this ecosystem. That rich biodiversity supports coastal communities and their businesses, from commercial and recreational fishing fleets to seafood markets and tourism outfitters.

Along with other coastal wetlands—namely mangroves and seagrass—salt marshes play a significant role in helping communities adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change. This habitat provides flood protection and shoreline stabilization by buffering coastal communities from the full impact of storms, which in many areas have become more frequent and intense.

In the U.S., coastal wetlands are estimated to provide the equivalent of $23.2 billion in storm damage protection per year.

Another Major Benefit: Blue Carbon

Photo Credit: Coreen Weilminster/Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve Maryland

Marshes also have extraordinary capacity to sequester carbon in their underlying soil, and this carbon can remain stored for decades if it is undisturbed. In fact, the saturated soil found in marsh ecosystems can retain more carbon per acre than some terrestrial forests and is often referred to as blue carbon—that is, carbon captured and retained by ocean and coastal ecosystems.

Salt marshes are one of only three marine ecosystems—along with mangroves and seagrass—currently recognized by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for their measurable carbon benefits. And scientists and stakeholders alike note the “triple-win” effect that healthy, intact salt marshes convey by helping governments address climate change through mitigation, adaption, and resilience.

Salt marshes are threatened, however, by the very phenomena that they can help to alleviate. Experts estimate that 50% of salt marshes have been lost globally, with declines continuing because of climate change, coastal development, industrialization, and pollution.

But there is hope to reverse this trend. Governments and international bodies are pursuing concrete ways to protect and restore salt marshes and the benefits they provide, such as climate policy instruments like the Paris Agreement. Parties to the agreement may include efforts to protect and restore salt marshes in their domestic climate action plans, called nationally determined contributions (NDCs). Every party to the Paris Agreement was due to enhance its NDC in 2020 and will submit further revisions—each with increasing ambition—every five years.

In the U.S., salt marsh and other blue carbon habitats can be incorporated into state plans for using nature-based solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, known as natural and working lands strategies. By quantifying the amount of carbon stored in these habitats and then setting goals to protect and expand that storage through conservation and restoration, states can help to support broader efforts to mitigate climate impacts. In addition, states, in partnership with federal agencies, should advance regional, landscape-level strategies to help salt marshes better adapt to climate impacts.

Salt marshes are an important nature-based solution in the fight against climate change, with far-reaching benefits for communities, wildlife, and coastal economies. Protecting these vital habitats must be a policy priority—globally and at all levels of government—moving forward.

This blog post was originally published by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Stacy Baez works on The Pew Charitable Trusts’ coastal wetlands and coral reefs project, and Sylvia Troost works on Pew’s conserving marine life in the United States project.

First-of-its-kind Engagement Tool Released for Investors on Natural Climate Solutions

As net-zero commitments become the new standard for investors and companies, Ceres and the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change (IIGCC) released a new first-of-its-kind engagement tool for investors to spur meaningful dialogue with companies on the role and use of natural climate solutions in delivering on those commitments. Natural climate solutions, such as forest protection or reforestation, are a common component of many corporate net-zero action plans, often used to offset companies’ greenhouse gas emissions.

New research shows that use of carbon credits increased by 81% in quarter 1 of 2021, with credits from natural climate solutions such as forest protection comprising the greatest share at 20.0 million credits retired. Much of this increase was driven by corporate demand to offset emissions. However, offsetting has long been controversial, and a lack of detail in companies’ commitments has made it difficult for investors to distinguish legitimate climate action from greenwashing.

In the face of this, The Role of Natural Climate Solutions in Corporate Climate Commitments: A Brief for Investors aims to help investors understand the role and use of natural climate solutions in climate commitments and provides clear guidance on how to facilitate engagements with portfolio companies on this issue. It also lays out expectations for climate disclosures — calling for transparency in critical steps along the way to net zero. 

“Our new brief introduces investors to what we call the ‘missing middle ground’ in the debate over natural climate solutions and offsetting, helping them make sense of the effective and appropriate use of these solutions in corporate climate action plans. We hope to empower investors to help companies avoid actions that pose climate-related and reputational risks to their portfolios and instead, help them make investments that deliver on their projected promises to cut emissions,” said DrMeryl Richards, director of research for food and forests at Ceres and lead author of the brief.

Projections show that without natural climate solutions, emissions will not be reduced enough to reach the 1.5 degree C warming threshold that is required to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. But when used to offset emissions from companies in high-emitting sectors, such strategies attract greater scrutiny. Recent reports have called into question the value of nature-based carbon credits, creating growing concern from investors, NGOs, journalists, and other climate watchdogs that some NCS projects may inflate the projected emissions reductions that they promise, or result in harmful outcomes for communities.  

The brief examines the appropriate use of natural climate solutions in corporate climate strategies, explores the investor’s perspective on the risks and opportunities associated with the use of natural climate solutions, and introduces key points of engagement for investors to guide company’s usage of natural climate solutions. 

It specifically calls on companies to disclose:

  • Short-, medium-, and long-term targets that are aligned with a 1.5 C pathway,
  • A credible transition plan for achieving targets,
  • How much of the target will be met through the use of carbon credits or carbon removals,
  • The GHG crediting programs, suppliers, and projects from which they source carbon credits, and
  • Whether their carbon credit purchases are certified under a social and environmental standard.

The brief also calls for guardrails to determine the appropriate use of natural climate solutions by companies, to ensure that they raise the ambition of their climate commitments, provide credible and scientifically-sound climate change mitigation benefits, and contribute social and environmental benefits to the communities where projects are located.

About Ceres

Ceres is a nonprofit organization working with the most influential capital market leaders to solve the world’s greatest sustainability challenges. Through our powerful networks and global collaborations of investors, companies and nonprofits, we drive action and inspire equitable market-based and policy solutions throughout the economy to build a just and sustainable future. For more information, visit and follow @CeresNews.

Miranda Cawley is the communications manager for the Water, Food and Forests Program at Ceres. 

The Math is in: Soil Health Practices Produce Real Return on Investment

Photo Credit: American Farmland Trust

Our nation’s farmers and ranchers care deeply about the land. They want to use practices that improve soil health and protect water quality like no-till or strip till, cover crops, and nutrient management.

But, farming is a business like any other. If the numbers don’t add up, it’s hard to make improvements that are good for the environment. Farming is a particularly challenging business and investing in new things can often seem too risky when you are hanging on by a thin margin.

That’s why I’m so excited about the release of new American Farmland Trust research that proves soil health benefits go right to farmers’ bottom line. AFT and the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service, or NRCS, released nine two-page case studies that show healthier soil on farmland brings economic benefits to farmers and environmental benefits to both farmers and society.

With support from a competitive NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant, AFT staff interviewed “soil health successful” farmers about the costs and benefits they attribute to their soil health practices. Featured are two corn-soybean farmers from Illinois and Ohio; a farmer with diversified crop rotation from New York; and an almond grower from California whose soil health practices included conservation cover, mulching, and nutrient management techniques like fertigation and compost application.

The case studies quantify key economic factors like increased crop yields, decreased input costs, and increases in annual net income experienced by the four farmers who have invested in practices that build soil health. The economic results are impressive:

  • Increased crop yields: All four farmers saw increased crop yields averaging 12%, ranging from 2% to 22%
  • Increased profits: The three crop farmers saw an average increase in net income of $42 per acre per year and the almond grower’s net income increased on average $657 per acre per year
  • Significant Return on Investment (ROI): ROI for all four farmers averaged 176%, ranging from 35% to 343%

The farmers also report their soil health practices helped them solve erosion problems on their fields. To model the water quality and climate outcomes from soil health practices, AFT used USDA’s Nutrient Tracking Tool and USDA’s COMET-Farm Tool on one selected field in each farm (ranging from 11 to 110 acres). The environmental outcomes were equally impressive. On average, the soil health practices are resulting in:

  • A 54% reduction in nitrogen losses;
  • An 81% reduction in phosphorus losses;
  • An 85% reduction in sediment losses; and
  • A 379% reduction in total greenhouse gasses, on the selected fields.

Considering these findings, we hope that farmers across the country will:

  • Try the soil health practices knowing they are likely to pay off
  • Reach out to their local NRCS field office for technical or financial support
  • Approach their existing landowners to discuss implementation of soil health practices on rented land and establish leasing terms that will better share the risks and rewards of improved soil health
  • Approach new landlords about acquiring new fields and offer the quantitative evidence that improved soil health will offer a high return on investment on the landowner’s fields
  • Should farmers be successful in securing new fields, we hope they will then use the case studies with their bankers to secure additional financing for the farm expansion

We hope that fellow conservation partners in the public sector (e.g., NRCS, Extension, Soil and Water Conservation Districts, and non-profit organizations, etc.) and the private sector (e.g., cover crop seed dealers, no-till and strip-till equipment dealers, ag retailers, etc.) will use these case studies to help their clients better understand the benefits and costs of adopting soil health practices.

Visit or sign-up for email updates from AFT for the latest on soil health and more!

Dr. Michelle Perez is the water initiative director at American Farmland Trust.

Cargill and Soil Health Institute find farmer experience with soil health pays off. Here’s how.

This blog originally appeared on Environmental Defense Fund’s Growing Returns blog.

Photo Credit: Liz George/TNC

Findings from a recent Soil Health Institute study add to growing evidence that soil health practices can provide financial benefits to farmers.

The Soil Health Institute, with support from Cargill, interviewed 100 farmers across nine states to measure the farm budget impacts of soil health practices.

“I believe this work is a critical area and critical question that we need to better address as we look at scaling up of soil health principles,” said Ryan Sirolli, Global Row Crop Sustainability Director at Cargill, during a webinar hosted by the Soil Health Institute.

The Institute used a partial budget analysis, asking farmers about yield changes and specific cost changes directly associated with adopting soil health practices.

“It was important that they have experience”

The farmers participating in the study mostly produced corn and soybeans and utilized conservation tillage and cover crop soil health practices — all having more than five years’ experience with these practices.

“We felt it was important that they have experience in these soil health practices for at least five years, because it often takes some time before seeing benefits with these practices,” said Dr. John Shanahan, agronomist and project manager at the Soil Health Institute.

Photo Credit: Isaac Shaw

It turns out that experience pays off.

Across the 100 participating farms, the Soil Health Institute found that net income increased for 85% of farmers growing corn and 88% of farmers growing soybeans.

Sixty-seven percent of the participating farmers reported increased yields due to soil health practices. Adopting soil health practices also reduced average corn production costs by $24 per acre and soybean production costs by $17 per acre.

Overall, adopting soil health practices increased net farm income by $52 per acre for corn and $45 per acre for soybeans.

Still, adopting soil health practices like cover crops looks different on every farm.

Cover crops in particular take time

A recent study by Environmental Defense Fund, Soil Health Partnership and K·Coe Isom found that profitable cover crop adoption takes time to achieve.

Farmers with more than five years’ experience with cover crops had lower costs and greater net profits than farmers with less than five years of experience with cover crops, showing that adopting cover crops profitably can take time.

A key takeaway from the EDF and Soil Health Institute studies is that soil health practices like cover crops can be profitable over time, but scaling the adoption of these practices beyond the early adopters will require financial support across the first few years of adoption.

Broader resilience benefits from healthy soils

Another important finding from the Soil Health Institute study is that 97% of the participating farmers reported increased crop resilience to extreme weather from adopting soil health practices.

These resilience benefits support findings from a recent research paper that documented a positive relationship between soil organic matter, higher yields and lower yield losses under drought conditions.

Building crop resilience under extreme weather like droughts could be an especially important benefit of soil health practices, since farmers can incur significant financial losses when facing severe drought conditions.

To learn more about the Soil Health Institute study, visit

Vincent Gauthier is a Working Lands Research Analyst for Environmental Defense Fund.

Sustainable Farming: Is There a Payoff?

Originally published by U.S. Farmers & Ranchers In Action. Read the article on their website here.

Farmers like Jared Hagert in North Dakota and the Schlichting family in Minnesota are finding good reasons to adopt sustainable farming practices. The emphasis on crop diversity and healthy soils is not just good for the environment — it adds to the bottom line, too.

Hagert is a fourth-generation corn and soybean farmer from Northwood, North Dakota. “I believe farming rests on a three-legged stool of economics, conservation and social responsibility. Being sustainable means you serve all three,” he says.

Most farmers understand the first two legs — economics and conservation. The two support each other, Hagert says. For instance, he makes widespread use of cover crops in his fields to protect the soil and nutrients through the off-season. Rye seeded in early September provides another growing root mass at a time of year when soils often lie bare.

The economic payoff comes in several ways. The biomass mat on the soil surface suppresses early weed competition the following spring, potentially eliminating one application of herbicide and saving him $25 per acre or more.

Cover crops use up excess surface moisture in the spring, helping to dry out soils. “They work like a subsurface drain tile, getting us in the field quicker,” explains Hagert.

Some deep-rooted cover crops, like radishes, also help break up compacted soil. The payoff there is in eliminating a trip with a chisel plow (a farm implement used for deep tillage) to break up compaction, which saves at least a gallon of diesel fuel per acre.

Variable-rate technology is another way he achieves economic and conservation sustainability. “We split most of our fields into three to five zones, based on the data we have collected,” he says. “We put more nutrients in the zones where it will maximize the return on investment.” Other zones get less, which prevents overapplication and saves money.

The third leg of Hagert’s farm stool — social responsibility — is something farmers don’t often talk about, but something many practice. He breaks it down like this: Farmers must be good citizens and adhere to government laws and regulations, such as safety protocols. They also must be aware of the people around them, including employees, neighbors, business suppliers and even consumers, respecting the needs of all. And they should maintain a “giving back” mentality that goes along with being a contributor to society.

Photo Credit: Andrew Kornylak

He thinks his farm’s use of modern technology contributes to its social responsibility. “We have the ability to show you when we sprayed or planted or applied fertilizer, what products we used, at what rates, and more,” he says. “Not everyone will want to see all that data, but someone might, and we want to be transparent.”

Is there a payoff? Hagert thinks these efforts have the potential to let them create a supply loop back to the farm. “The documentation of what we did and when we did it could be a marketing point for our farm,” he says.

He also points to the variety of ways farmers are involved in communities, such as county boards, schools, volunteer groups and commodity organizations. “They give us an opportunity to share about our farms in a positive way. It’s hard to put a dollar value to it, but I think it’s part of sustainability.”

Prairie Farms in central Minnesota is managed by Richard Schlichting and his daughter, Jocelyn Schlichting Hicks. Their goal is to operate the farm in such a way that they can do it forever, Hicks says. “It’s doing things to improve the land, being mindful of the natural things around you and protecting the water, too, Schlichting adds. “We’ve been doing sustainable practices for over 30 years, and we’re still here.”

They, too, start with cover crops as a key part of their sustainability practices. They usually seed cereal rye in the fall after harvesting potatoes or kidney beans, and the rye grows until the next planting season. They grow the seed rye themselves, and it costs about $12 per acre to grow and seed. They do it in combination with other fieldwork to limit field traffic and cost.

Their three-crop rotation — kidney beans, potatoes and corn — is also an integral part of their sustainability. Corn in the rotation breaks up the life cycle of some pests, particularly potato bugs, and saves pesticide expense.

Fertilizer applications are done in smaller shots throughout the season to reduce the potential for nutrient runoff or leaching into water sources. It also often saves money. Some fields get four or more fertilizer applications during the growing season, usually through the irrigation system.

“If I had to decide in June what total nitrogen to put on a corn field, I’d probably put on 100% of what I thought it needed, to make sure the crop doesn’t run out,” Schlichting says. “But with our system, the last application can be delayed to tasseling time; we decide then whether we need it or not. Sometimes that means we cut our nitrogen applications by at least 10%.”

More recently, Prairie Farms added automatic row shutoff technology (which eliminates double-planted areas) to its planters and section control (which reduces overapplication of spray) for all input applications to reduce input quantity and cost. All of their fields are irrigated, and the row shutoffs are especially valuable in the field corners where the irrigation water doesn’t reach. In sandy soils, those corners yield very poorly, essentially wasting that seed. “In the first year with the row shutoffs, we saved 50 bags of corn seed,” Hicks says. “That can pay for a lot of technology.”

It’s another reason the family says sustainable farming doesn’t cost; it pays. “It adds to our profitability,” Schlichting says.

Improving Climate + Park Equity in Cleveland

Photo Credit: Darcy Kiefel

The historic city of Cleveland, Ohio is situated on the shores of Lake Erie and the banks of the Cuyahoga River. Like many major metropolitan areas throughout the United States, it is facing multiple challenges simultaneously. The climate crisis, loss of nature, and long-standing structural inequities threaten residents, the city as a whole, and the natural ecosystem. To combat these growing crises, The Trust for Public Land is working with government and community partners to address climate and park equity through a people and data-driven approach.

Parks are not perks — they are essential infrastructure for healthy, connected, equitable, resilient, and empowered communities.

The Trust for Public Land and its partners are using cutting edge data and science to support resilient planning efforts, economic benefit studies to demonstrate the value of increasing investments in parks and nature-based climate solutions, and deep community engagement to transform neighborhoods and deliver improved climate, health and equity outcomes.

Climate Smart Cities – Cleveland. With funding from U.S. EPA and NOAA, The Trust for Public Land partnered with the City of Cleveland to support resiliency goals using the power of parks and green infrastructure. The project team, made up of city officials and community-based organizations, developed a publicly available web mapping decision support tool that pinpoints where investments in parks and green infrastructure are most needed to improve local resilience and equity. The tool brings together environment, land use, health and equity data to enable multi-benefit analysis. The tool shows, down to the parcel level, where investments in parks and green infrastructure can simultaneously:

  • Cool extreme heat;
  • Absorb stormwater runoff;
  • Protect against lake and river flooding; and
  • Connect neighborhoods to reduce transportation emissions.

But identifying where park and other nature-based investments are needed to build local climate, health, and equity outcomes was only the first step. City officials and others wanted to know the value of parks.  

Economic Benefits of Cleveland Metroparks. Economists with The Trust for Public Land conducted a study to evaluate the economic benefits provided by Cleveland Metroparks – the manager of the regional park system. The findings were astounding. The existing park system creates $873 million in economic value each year (figure1). That includes the over $20 million in stormwater infiltration and $8 million in reduced air pollution value a year. Supporting the Cleveland Metroparks system values, further analysis using iTree Landscape shows the tree canopy found throughout the city, including on parks and public land, stores approximately 171,000 tons of carbon (valued at nearly $30 million) and sequesters nearly 4,500 tons annually (valued at $767,000 per year).

Park Equity +: Building on the Climate Smart Cities partnership and the valuation of Cleveland Metroparks, economists with The Trust for Public Land went one step further and identified the five highest-priority neighborhoods for park development in the city and then projected the likely economic benefits of future investment. New and improved parks in these five neighborhoods would bring an additional 10,600 individuals, including 2,850 children, who do not currently have easy access to a park, within a 10-minute walk of a park. Park investments in these neighborhoods are also expected to produce an estimated $10.1 million in economic benefits over the next ten years. Click here to learn more and view the research summaries by neighborhood.

This work continues to build momentum for increased investment in parks and green space. In 2021, Cleveland became one of the first seven cities to participate in the Urban Drawdown Initiative – an effort to quantify the carbon capture potential of urban greening and improved land management practices.

While there is still a lot of work to be done, these planning efforts and economic valuation studies have laid the groundwork for transformational urban greening that can draw down carbon, improve resilience, and help address long-standing inequities for the community.  

To learn more about The Trust for Public Land’s work in Cleveland visit and to learn more about The Trust for Public Land’s national climate, health, and equity commitments, visit:

Taj Schottland is the Senior Climate Program Manager at The Trust for Public Land.

Seeing the City for the Trees

Eboni Hall spends her days split between research, increasing urban forestry education at institutions, assisting youth in navigating their urban forestry career path and mentoring students, all while working to achieve Tree Equity. Photo Credit: Eboni Hall.

When Eboni Hall first entered college, she thought for sure she was going to become a sports therapist. She wanted to learn kinesiology, the study of body movement and muscles. It was a sensible choice, something familiar, and a far cry from her ultimate path in urban forestry.

She’d grown up in Baton Rouge, La., entrenched in a love for natural areas, her childhood full of making mud pies, climbing trees and reading books outside. Despite that connection to nature, she’d never really thought about urban forestry as a concept, let alone a potential career path. “I remember thinking, urban forestry? That sounds like some- thing for tree huggers,” she says.

It was during a summer program called BAYOU, Beginning Agricultural Youth Opportunities Unlimited, at Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge, that Hall’s world changed. Hall is young, Black and a woman, quite different from the typical description of a forester, a field long dominated by white men. “People of color don’t have a reflection of themselves in this field, and they get discouraged,” says Hall. “Maybe if people see I’m able to do it, they’ll think they can.”

The BAYOU program introduced Hall to an array of environmental science disciplines and job opportunities that redefined urban forestry for her. She went on to study the discipline at Southern, the only four-year university that offers a bachelor’s degree in urban forestry. Eventually, she earned her Ph.D. and now works as the senior manager of urban forestry education at American Forests. Hall has made it her life’s mission to provide other young people with the inspiration she found through BAYOU. In doing so, she is shaping one of the most important roles for building social and environmental equity and combating climate change.

Creating the Next Generation of Urban Foresters

Photo Credit: David Meshoulam.

People who work in urban forestry are addressing climate change, as well as social and environmental equity. City trees help absorb carbon from the atmosphere and make people’s lives better by providing shade, filtering the air, lifting moods and more. Trees also create jobs. But not everyone benefits equally from trees, largely because socioeconomically disadvantaged communities historically have lacked trees. A blossoming movement toward Tree Equity — which, simply put, is about ensuring every city neighborhood has enough trees so that every person benefits from them — is fueling the demand for more urban foresters. In fact, jobs for people who can plant, prune and maintain trees in cities are expected to grow 10% by 2028.

Attracting young people to the field is essential to growing that workforce. Hall and others like her are taking on the challenge, educating youth about urban forestry and related fields as a career and helping create clear pathways for professional advancement. The first step is making sure these future foresters understand that city trees are more than something nice to look at.

Trees as Critical Urban Infrastructure

In America’s cities, trees help the environment, but they also play a vital role in fulfilling our basic needs. That is particularly true during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Green spaces are a peaceful place to go to find refuge. When you don’t have access to them, you often are surrounded by unhealthy environmental conditions, and it has impacts on mental health,” says Suleima Mednick-Coles, one of Hall’s mentees and a student in the Black Scholars program at the University of San Francisco.

Making the connection between the importance of caring for trees and how they benefit day-to-day life is critical to growing interest in urban forestry, says Sarah Anderson, director of Career Pathways at American Forests. “Communities with low tree canopy cover tend to have higher rates of unemployment, and if you don’t have access to trees, you can’t make money caring for them.”

Job opportunities to plant and care for trees are expected to rise, thanks in part to the important role cities will play in the global trillion trees movement. In order to meet that need, American Forests has set a goal that by 2030 at least 100,000 people, particularly those from socioeconomically disadvantaged communities, will enter jobs in forestry. “I think it’s something that’s really a no-brainer to invest in,” Anderson says. “And it’s a well-paying one, with average entry-level tree workers earning about $20 an hour, roughly $40,000 per year.”

Paving the Way

Suleima Mednick-Coles is cobbling together her interests as an amalgamation of multiple majors and minors. Photo Credit: Suleima Mednick-Coles.

One obstacle to building an urban forestry workforce is that many young people don’t know how to access the field, or that it even exists. American Forests is working with Southern University and groups like Speak for the Trees, Boston to raise awareness of, and build bridges to, the field.

American Forests has developed two guides to help individuals map their journeys to urban forestry careers: the Career Pathways Exploration Guide and the Career Pathways Action Guide. Geared toward people who could benefit most from joining the field, these guides spotlight educational pathways and entry-level job training programs that train and place individuals who face barriers to employment so that they can enter the field. There are pilot projects in six cities: Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Detroit, Chicago, Providence, R.I., and Syracuse, N.Y.

The local programs also try to provide additional services, such as transportation and childcare, both significant barriers to job entry in communities where people are struggling financially. “It’s all about meeting people where they’re at, physically, emotionally, age-wise,” says David Meshoulam, executive director of Speak for the Trees, Boston.

Job shadowing, paid apprenticeship and pre- apprenticeship programs can remove barriers to finding viable careers. “Many youth live in the now and go into survival mode in order to provide for their families,” says Hall. “They can’t afford to stop working to improve a skill set.” That’s where partnerships, programs, resources and expertise provided by American Forests come into play.

A Field with Many Disciplines

Photo Credit: Bouyant Partners/American Forests

One exciting outlook in the field of urban forestry is how expansive it is. Traditionally, urban forestry has been synonymous with arboriculture and tree maintenance, Hall says. “But urban forestry encompasses so much more than trees alone.”

An array of disciplines have jobs that fall under the urban forestry umbrella: environmental law, hydrology, psychology, soil science, urban planning and public health, to name a few.

Currently, Southern University and A&M College is the only university in the United States that offers a designated degree in urban forestry. Students elsewhere often have to create their own paths. For example, at the University of San Francisco, Mednick-Coles is cobbling together her interests as an amalgamation of multiple majors and minors that encompasses international studies, sustainable development and environmental justice and African-American studies. To entice and prepare students, Hall hopes more colleges and universities will begin offering urban forestry programs, making more connections to other disciplines and utilizing an interdisciplinary urban forestry curriculum she developed.

Today, Hall spends her days split between research, increasing urban forestry education at institutions, assisting youth in navigating their urban forestry career path and mentoring students, all while working to achieve Tree Equity.

“Don’t wait too long to take that exam,” Hall teases, while on a recent Zoom call with Jordan Davis. Davis is about to graduate with a degree in urban forestry from Southern University. He entered college bent on studying engineering when he discovered the BAYOU program and a new future. The exam Hall is referring to is the

International Society of Arboriculture Credential, a requirement to become a certified arborist. Davis laughs good-naturedly. “I won’t. I won’t,” he says.

He’s thinking of returning to his hometown of Jackson, La., to provide urban forestry community outreach. A lot of students get interested in jobs they learn about in high school, Davis says. He wants urban forestry to be one of them. He’s thinking of someday launching his own arboriculture business. His family even started a company, Carpet Cuts, LLC, a lawn care business that incorporates tree care. His face beams with pure optimism.

Morgan Heim, a conservation journalist based in Oregon’s forest country, wrote this story for American Forests.