Our City Forest has mobilized more than 100,000 volunteers to help turn San Jose into an urban forest

By Dale Bryant

San Jose, CA (March 8, 2012)- If you wanted to plant a forest in the wilderness, you could simply fly over the area and scatter a bunch of seeds. Growing a forest in a city is quite another matter. First, the proper tree has to be selected. Choose the wrong tree for the location, and trouble will follow. Then the tree needs to be planted properly. In a city there is sometimes concrete to cut; a soil auger often must be used, especially with the valley’s hard clay soil. And then permits have to be obtained. On top of that, someone needs to commit to nurturing the tree for the first three years after it’s planted.

If San Jose were a city that didn’t care about trees, there would be little cause to worry about planting and managing an urban forest. But San Jose does care about trees, and started kicking around the idea of an urban forest in the early 1990s. In 1991, the city asked Rhonda Berry to plant 5,000 trees for a Highway 85 state mitigation project. Berry had previously worked with the city of East Palo Alto to secure a grant to plant 500 trees.

Our City Forest grew from that successful highway mitigation project. Although OCF was incorporated as a private nonprofit organization in 1994, the bond with the city has remained strong. Now the city of San Jose is intent on planting 100,000 trees by 2022 as part of its 10 point “Green Vision” adopted in 2007.
According to city arborist Ralph Mize, the city is looking to OCF as a strong partner in that effort.

“Our City Forest is the primary mechanism for attaining the tree planting goal,” he says, adding that the city itself has no tree planting function except in a very limited way, such as street meridians. He calls OCF “the primary tree planting force in the valley.”

Force indeed. Over the years, Our City Forest has planted more than 60,000 15-gallon shade trees at no charge. During its history, the organization has mobilized some 100,000 volunteers. At its core, OCF is composed of eight staff, 35 AmeriCorps team members and trained volunteers known as Tree Amigos. Volunteers come on board with a willingness to donate time and energy in exchange for the training they receive in planting and caring for trees. Some will spend time volunteering, then take their newfound skills back home to better care for their own trees. Others will sign up for additional training to become Tree Amigos, able to mentor and advise a new crop of volunteers.

The person at the head of the nonprofit organization–or as she prefers to think of herself, the person behind the scenes–is Rhonda Berry. With her background in public administration, Berry might seem an unlikely candidate to create an urban forest, but she had come to a point in her life where she wanted something more satisfying than the career she’d carved out as a senior management analyst. It helps to know that Berry, who has a degree in sociology from UC-Berkeley and spent time as a Vista volunteer, knows a little about volunteer recruitment and community organizing.

From the beginning, Our City Forest has depended on a “community engagement model” to win grants and help bring a sense of pride to local communities, because OCF requires community participation in all planting projects. “If trees aren’t properly planted and cared for,” Berry says, “they’ll die.” That’s why every tree that’s planted has to be adopted by someone, with a three year commitment.

Although OCF is not funded by San Jose, the city has provided small grants that the organization has used to leverage federal and state grants that have been a primary source of funding. “We spent years not knowing if we’d survive,” Berry recalls. “We didn’t have trucks for the first 25,000 trees we planted.”

Now with state and federal budget cuts, Berry is worried once again about survival. “The federal and state grants are drying up,” she says. The city provided 16 percent of Our City Forest’s budget this year, but Berry understands nothing is certain these days when it comes to funding. She knows she needs to look to other funding sources and is hoping individual and corporate donations can be pumped up. The irony is that many people believe Our City Forest is a fully funded city program. One person trying to put together a team of volunteers in her neighborhood recently sent an email to neighbors, saying the city was going to deliver trees for the planting project, when in fact, the trees were being delivered by the nonprofit OCF.

Urban forestry is not an inexpensive proposition, even with a corps of volunteers and AmeriCorps team members, as OCF has to supplement about half of AmeriCorps members’ stipend, in addition to paying for their insurance, workers’ compensation and other items. There are also costs associated with the record-keeping required for the grant process. Berry says, OCF tracks trees for three years and has a 95 percent survival rate. It’s not enough to simply plant trees, she adds: Their survival rate has to be tracked.

One recent OCF project illustrates the coordination, planning and expense required. Our City Forest recently planted 59 trees at Meadowfair Park in San Jose. The project required mapping and selecting trees; organizing volunteers; delivering trees, stakes, mulch, rubber ties and gardening equipment; then scheduling who would be where and when. There was a volunteer sign-in, planting demonstration, staking demonstration, post-pounding, crossbars and ties when tree planting is done, height checks and watering. The planting was completed at a cost to Our City Forest of $10,000. The agency spends about $20,000 in services each month and conducts about 100 programs a year.

OCF’s AmeriCorps team has also spent a good deal of time helping the city conduct its tree inventory, which is the first step in reaching the Green Vision goal of planting 100,000 trees. That project, according to Mize, is 60 percent complete.

Carl Ward, who started volunteering with OCF in January 2004, has stayed involved as a Tree Amigo, donating six to eight hours a week. A retired chemist, he says he enjoys the exercise he gets from working as a Tree Amigo, and he enjoys being around the young people in the AmeriCorps team, but he worries about how much the city expects from OCF.

“This is a city of nearly a million people, but the city has no program in place that is systematically planting trees,” he says. “The city really leans on this nonprofit, and I think might be taking OCF for granted.” He points to San Jose’s Green Vision as an example of the city expecting the nonprofit organization to ensure the city realizes its goal of planting 100,000 trees.

In spite of fears about funding in the future, Our City Forest took a big step last year with the opening of its nursery and training center at 100 Spring St. The biggest drawback is that it’s right in the airport’s flight pattern, and it gets so noisy at rapid intervals that people stop talking until quiet resumes. On the other hand, the nursery sits on property donated by the city, and there are some 5,000 trees being grown, 1,500 of which are ready to plant.

With the nursery, Our City Forest is able for the first time to make trees available for people to plant in their yards. For a minimum donation of $20, people will receive help in selecting the right tree for their location, and they will take a mandatory class to learn how to plant and care for their new tree. On a recent weekday, Steve Homer, nursery manager, talked about preparing for the 700 bare-root trees expected to arrive the next day. Nursery staff, including seven AmeriCorps members, would be busy training and supervising volunteers, and a group of Tree Amigos would be on hand to help with volunteer mentoring duties. The trees were coming from a local wholesale nursery.

When Homer started the job, he had a big bare field facing him. Among other duties, he supervised the installation of seven miles of drip tubing for irrigation. Later, a greenhouse arrived in many pieces; it’s now home to seedlings grown from seeds OCF staff and others have collected. The next project is a shade area where the seedlings can move until they’re mature enough to move into an unprotected area. Oh, and the next time, OCF comes up with $20,000, it plans to bring electricity to the greenhouse.

Berry hopes the fee it charges for backyard trees is a small step toward diversifying the organization’s funding base. She also hopes the nursery will afford the opportunity to do some contract growing. They have an area set aside for growing California native plants and are contracting with the Santa Clara County Water District to grow plants for re-vegetation projects along creek beds. They also have a contract to grow California natives for the new Apple complex. Planting an urban forest is nowhere near as simple as growing a forest in the wilderness, but thanks to Our City Forest, San Jose is already a city with a proud tree tradition.

Related Resources:
Mercury News- The nonprofit Our City Forest has mobilized more than 100,000 volunteers to help turn San Jose into an urban forest
Our City Forest