(Chicago, IL)- As part of its Community Greening effort, Openlands in Chicago operates a TreeKeepers program that has certified more than 800 volunteers to work on public property to plant and care for trees. TreeKeepers is the only non-governmental group authorized to mulch, prune or plant trees on public land in the city.

Category: Working with Volunteers, Training
In order to be certified as TreeKeepers, volunteers must attend seven consecutive Saturday classes in tree knowledge, planting and care, pass a written exam with a grade of at least 70 percent and complete practical exams on tree planting, mulching and pruning. In addition, participants pledge to volunteer 24 hours within the year following graduation.
In 2006, TreeKeepers initiated 156 work projects throughout the city involving mulching, pruning, habitat restoration and planting.
Founded in 1963, Openlands is dedicated to preserving and enhancing public open space in northeastern Illinois. To date, Openlands has taken leadership roles in securing more than 45,000 acres of land in the Chicago area for public parks, forest preserves, land and water greenway corridors, and urban gardens.
Openlands operates several programs:
* Greenways works with local governments and the public to secure a web of green throughout the region along with developing effective watershed-management techniques
* Policy focuses on open-space advocacy in the region, including legislation, policy research and analysis, and citizen activism
* Community Greening provides technical and community organizing assistance for open-space planning and neighborhood greening. Urban Greening also trains and supports hundreds of TreeKeepers volunteers who care for the urban forest.
* Corporatelands provides outreach and technical assistance to corporations interested in natural landscaping and natural storm-water management techniques.
In the early 1990s, the City of Chicago began to devote more resources to tree planting. In 1991, in response to this change in priorities, Openlands, which had previously focused on tree planting, developed TreeKeepers to complement the work done by the Chicago Bureau of Forestry and the Chicago Park District to keep these trees green and healthy.
According to Openlands, forest trees may live hundreds of years, but city trees in Chicago only survive for about 15 years unless they receive extra attention. Thousands of city trees die annually because of disease, stress, abuse or neglect.
From the onset, Openlands worked in conjunction with city agencies and local arborists to develop TreeKeepers. Leading urban forestry professionals helped develop the curriculum and certification process, and volunteered to teach the courses.
Training classes
Training for TreeKeepers is offered each spring and fall on seven consecutive Saturdays from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Classes are taught, on a volunteer basis, by nationally and world-renowned arboriculture and tree research experts from the Morton Arboretum, Chicago’s Bureau of Forestry, the Chicago Park District, Chicago’s Department of Environment and private arboriculture experts.
Class topics include: Benefits of Urban Trees, Tree Folktales and Myths, Tree Physiology, Learning to Know Trees by their Latin Names, Tree Species Identification, Common Tree Diseases and Insect Damage, Hands-On Pruning, Right Tree in the Right Place, and Planting and Mulching.
Classes are offered in various locations throughout the City of Chicago in order to attract participants from all sections.
Class tuition is $80 and financial assistance is available as needed. In addition, graduate credit is available through the College of Education at Aurora University for students who attend all classes plus nine hours of field training and testing. Aurora University charges students an additional fee.
To receive certification, students must:
Attend all seven classes (missed classes may be made up during a subsequent series)
Pass a written final exam with a grade of at least 70 percent
Complete practical exams on tree planting, mulching and pruning
Pledge 24 volunteer hours within the year following graduation (in tree care, educational outreach programs, administrative work, community greening or any combination of the above).
The TreeKeepers course typically enrolls about 70 new students each year, plus a few returning students who need to make up one or two classes in order to be certified.
Volunteer corps
TreeKeepers currently oversee projects that care for trees in public parks, on city streets and at other public sites almost every weekend throughout the year. On many weekends, multiple projects are hosted throughout the city. In 2006, TreeKeepers completed 156 projects.
Originally, TreeKeepers’ staff initiated and supervised tree maintenance projects for TreeKeeper graduates, but these programs are now almost entirely originated and overseen by the volunteers themselves.
All projects require city permits, which are obtained by Openlands staff. The Bureau of Forestry and the Park District provide wood chips, tools and other supplies as needed for the workdays.
When the region faced a serious drought in 2005, TreeKeepers worked in partnership with several city agencies to implement an intensive watering regimen that focused on the 60,000 young trees planted in the five previous years. The city shared maps with Treekeepers giving the locations of these young trees, and TreeKeepers made special efforts to regularly water trees in their neighborhoods. City and Openlands staff also made television appearances and passed out flyers to alert homeowners that that trees on their parkways needed watering and gave proper watering technique instructions.
Staffing and funding
The main staff person for the program is the TreeKeepers coordinator, a contract employee who is paid to work three days a week. In addition, the director of community greening, Glenda Daniel, devotes about one day every two weeks to the program. Daniel emphasizes that the TreeKeepers coordinator usually works closer to five days a week, volunteering the extra time.
Funding for the program, which costs approximately $100,000 to operate, comes from a variety of sources, including the Siragusa Foundation, the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, WNIB Foundation, Morton Salt, Patagonia and The Timberland Co.
Marketing and volunteer recruitment and retention
Since TreeKeepers has been operating for more than 15 years, it has a momentum of its own. Many TreeKeepers adopt areas of the city to monitor and maintain and they do an excellent job of recruiting additional volunteers for the projects they initiate. Moreover, through the years, TreeKeepers has developed a close-knit community where TreeKeepers help each other with their pet projects.
Openlands provides lots of reinforcement for its volunteers, including bi-monthly continuing education meetings which include refreshments and an opportunity for social interaction.
The TreeKeepers coordinator markets to the community by speaking to community groups, delivering flyers announcing upcoming events and posting information in parks and other public areas. Moreover, Openlands has a good relationship with the local press which publicizes its calendar of events.
In addition, Openlands keeps in close contact with its partners, neighborhood organizations and volunteers by sending emails and a mailed calendar of work days once a month. The TreeKeeper Coordinator maintains an updated contact list of addresses by following up if mail is returned.
At least 15 percent of TreeKeepers stay actively involved over the long term once they are certified. Typically, volunteers are most active the first two years following certification.
TreeKeepers currently has more than 800 certified members and close to 200 more participants working on completing their certification.
In 2006, TreeKeepers sponsored 156 workdays that included mulching, pruning, habitat restoration and planting. Workdays are typically three hours on Saturday or Sunday mornings and involve approximately 10 volunteers.
1. Encourage volunteers to be leaders right from the onset. One of the key reasons for TreeKeepers’ success is that the volunteers are able to initiate, follow-through and supervise their own projects. This, of course, requires confidence in the training and certification process.
2. Obtain liability insurance.
3. Involve your partners from the beginning. City officials have confidence in the curriculum and training offered by TreeKeepers because they played a major role in developing the program. In fact, many City and Park District employees are themselves TreeKeepers volunteers.
4. Pay attention to the importance of engaging, motivating, encouraging and keeping volunteers. Treat your volunteers with respect. They need to know that their services are valued and important. For example, Openlands always consults the TreeKeepers in a neighborhood before initiating any project in the area.
5. Openlands has found that it is more important that its TreeKeepers coordinator have skills in recruiting and motivating volunteers than in the technical aspects of urban forestry. The technical aspects can be accessed through other partners and staff.
6. There is a fine line between being a working partner with the city and being a watchdog on city policies. If there is an area where you disagree, it is important to be diplomatic, to talk to the city before you talk to the press, and to do your homework to best understand the issues. But never give up your watchdog role!
Contact Information:
Glenda Daniel, Director of Community Greening
25 East Washington Street, Suite 1650
Chicago, Illinois 60602
Phone: 312-863-6255
Fax: 312-427-6251