Interview with David Forsell, New ACTrees President

College Park, MD (January 15, 2013) – New ACTrees President, David Forsell talks about the triple bottom line impact of trees, ACTrees 2013 funding and advocacy efforts, and opportunities for ACTrees members to strengthen the network and collective mission right where they’re planted.

Tells us about yourself and Keep Indianapolis Beautiful.

DF: I’ve been president of Keep Indianapolis Beautiful (KIB) for nine years and never thought I’d end of up being a CEO of this or any non-profit. I grew up professionally at KIB planting trees and creating parks, and my passions and drive eventually landed me in this seat.

KIB has 18 full-time staff, but my pride and joy is our Youth Tree Team, which adds about 80 seasonal staff to the KIB payroll. We have an annual budget of about $3.5 million from private, public, and charitable organizations.

We’re a proud member of ACTrees. I’ve admired ACTrees from afar for years, but KIB decided in 2006 that we wanted to get very serious about community forestry. Tree planting and tending isn’t always easy, but we knew that trees could be one of the most effective and relatively inexpensive ways to positively impact the social, environmental, and economic qualities of our city. So we set out to do it, and now typically plant about 5,000 1” caliper trees annually. Learn more about David, including his favorite tree.

What impact are trees having on your city?

DF: Urban trees provide that triple bottom line impact.

From a sociological perspective, we began seeing that the folks working together to plant and tend trees were also beginning to build community, create relationships, and organize crime watches and other activities that enhanced quality of life. Working with Indiana University researchers, we’re discovering a relationship between tree planting and tending and social cohesion. This indication of a spillover effect of planting and tending trees is particularly important for neighborhoods impacted by economic distress and crime.

From an environmental standpoint, we’ve used i-Tree software to demonstrate to our mayor the huge impact trees have on mitigating stormwater runoff, and all of the challenges unmanaged runoff brings to water quality and to our aging sanitary system. When stormwater overwhelms the system, raw sewage is released into our waterways. Showing how urban trees can help with this problem led to a surge in public investment in our work.

From an economic perspective, the savings associated with avoiding built infrastructure and instead using green is demonstrable. And, through the Youth Tree Team, we’re often giving young people their first job. While we help nurture and encourage our civic leaders of tomorrow, their work ensures generational impacts of thriving trees.

How does ACTrees help to promote Keep Indianapolis Beautiful’s mission?

DF: ACTrees provides great value to its membership, particularly in terms of learning, relationships, and funding opportunities.

Number one for KIB has been the opportunity to learn with and from other members. As we developed our NeighborWoods effort, our team made special road trips to The Greening of Detroit and Trees Atlanta to help us get better and better at what we do. ACTrees Day has provided tremendous learning opportunities and forums to build relationships with leading thinkers and do-ers in the country. Sometimes the best learning happens between sessions!

Of course, ACTrees’ ability to secure corporate sponsorships for KIB’s work has been wonderful. These funds and relationships wouldn’t be possible without the ACTrees staff doing their great work day in and day out.

What do you see as the challenges to urban forests this year and moving forward? What are the opportunities?

DF: There are always challenges, of course, to America’s urban forests. A few that immediately come to mind are threats that often seem beyond our control: the weather and the economy.

Climate change, whether exacerbated by human activities or not, wreaks havoc on community trees. Floods, storm surges, heavy winds, drought… the list goes on. In Indianapolis, we had the hottest year on record in 2012, and an historic drought. The City of Indianapolis, which supports our efforts, let us amend a contract for tree planting and care to shift into watering mode for a good portion of the year. It was an incredible operational challenge, but we shifted our resources and energies to weekly watering of 11,000 trees planted within the past five years. We believe we made a big difference; time will tell. Municipal budgets are strained generally, but even more so in times of economic uncertainty. This too, seems to be out of our hands.

These sorts of challenges always provide opportunity, too. What non-traditional sources of income are available? What new partnerships are possible, if we rally around a multitude of social or environmental issues trees help address? In Indianapolis, we have support from folks who put the trees pretty far down their list, but instead are motivated by the youth hiring, or the mitigation of stormwater that trees provide. All of us have an opportunity to tell the community forestry story in more compelling ways.

What are the top priorities for ACTrees in 2013?

DF: It all comes back to our members, and we’re always interested in understanding how the Board and staff can serve you better. ACTrees exists to support non-profit, community-based organizations dedicated to tree planting, care, conservation and education.

Two key areas are funding and advocacy. We want to grow the funding base at ACTrees that supports grants and services to our members. We’re also interested in continuing to provide a voice for membership, and be alongside our members on issues of importance. We do that in Washington around policy. We do that by participating in meaningful partnerships.

On February 26-27, ACTrees members will come to Washington for a national Policy Summit. We hope ACTrees inspires learning amongst legislators, and our members, about the benefits of urban forests to our country.

How can members, partners, and friends best support ACTrees mission to plant and care for city trees? How can they get involved?

DF: Like anything, the benefits you get from a membership often have a lot to do with the amount of energy and curiosity you bring to it.  For me, ACTrees Day, and the related Partners in Community Forestry Conference, has been a fundamental opportunity to learn and build relationships.

It was a turning point for me in 2006 at ACTrees Day in Charlotte when my KIB colleague Andrew Hart and I heard a speaker from Sustainable South Bronx. She spoke of their inspiration to plant trees to address air quality concerns and to build community. My eyes were opened that trees could be applied as a balm for economic difficulty and environmental stress.

Our network’s collective efforts, our story-telling, and our commitment to sharing best practices are a virtuous cycle, with impacts at the local and national levels. I hope our members even on their toughest days remember the incredible power of trees, and the very important work all of us do every day. The most important thing that will strengthen our network and collective mission is to do excellent work, right at home, and to keep improving. Our ACTrees staff is committed to that too. Please participate, and be part of our story of growth and opportunity!

Click here to reach David directly.