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Openlands TreeKeeper

Pablo Rodriguez, a TreeKeeper with Openlands, participates in a workshop teaching other volunteers to prune and care for trees.

Openlands TreeKeeper

Pablo Rodriguez, a TreeKeeper with Openlands, participates in a workshop teaching other volunteers to prune and care for trees.

Openlands to plant its 10,000th tree on public land on Arbor Day

Openlands promotes community forestry with the TreeKeepers program which serves as a gateway for learning about the environment.”

Pablo Rodriguez, a TreeKeeper with Openlands, participates in a workshop teaching other volunteers to prune and care for trees.

   

Trees are important for healthy communities. They absorb stormwater which can help prevent flooding. They pull pollutants from the air. And they create oxygen for us to breathe.

But only 23% of Chicago is covered by trees. Not only is that below the estimated national average, but there are more trees in wealthier majority white neighborhoods than in working class communities of color.

There are many efforts to change this. One that’s working at the community level is the TreeKeepers certification program, run by Openlands.

The program teaches residents to identify, care for and plant trees, and in so doing, become tree advocates. They are set to plant their 10,000th tree this Arbor Day.

We learned more about this program from Pablo Rodriguez, TreeKeeper #1905, Michael Davidson, president, CEO Openlands and Karen Weigert, Reset sustainability contributor and director of Loyola University Chicago’s Baumhart Center for Social Enterprise and Responsibility.

How do you notice the disparities in tree coverage?

Rodriguez: I'm commuting between different neighborhoods. I live in Edgewater. It has pretty good tree canopy. It's amazing to walk there. But then I go down to Black and brown neighborhoods like Little Village…have been left out of…the fight for having more green spaces. So that's kind of my push for why I got involved with this work.

Why are we losing trees?

Weigert: Dutch elm disease came through a couple of decades ago and took out a significant portion of trees. The one we’re dealing with now is the emerald ash borer. And then we're also seeing some changes in the weather. Some trees that used to really thrive here may have harder times as we see weather changes.

You're going to see less (white birch trees). They're not going to be happy in Chicago anymore. It's a little too warm for them. Lots of our favorites though, maples and oaks…are going to be thriving here. And so we'll have to think of some new trees to plant that we didn't plant (before). It's about having a diverse canopy.

Tell us about TreeKeepers.

Rodriguez: There are three programs right now. Spring, summer and fall. This summer is the third year of the Spanish program. You learn to take care of trees…you learn the biology, what’s the stem, what’s the root, how they are part of communities….how to advocate for trees.

Davidson: We’ve got about 2,400 TreeKeepers out there, most of them in Chicago but now have breached the city line into some suburban municipalities…these are the trained citizens of the city of Chicago who might see a tree injustice underway, and they go to their Alder, they go to City Hall, they go to whomever and they take action.

What’s your favorite tree?

Rodriguez: The catalpa tree…it was the first tree I was able to recognize. That’s one of the reasons why it’s my favorite. And it’s…pretty common in Edgewater. So it’s a way to connect with my community.

Davidson: Right now, it’s the swamp white oak….I sit with my dog Robin under that tree. I feel connected to absolutely everything when I am next to that tree.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

You can listen to the full conversation above.

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