With this year’s Earth Day theme invoking, “Trees for Earth,” the impulse is to encircle a familiar trunk, in a private garden or public park, and touch something enduring. The tree’s bark and gnarl — either coarse or smooth — conveys a source of life, particularly in the spring, when even minimal moisture from a desert rain allows changes to take place, bringing alive canopies of bloom or lush leaves.
Trees have been incorporated into folklore and ritual since ancient times, when various cultures identified trees as receptacles of souls, or, as in Egyptian myth, homes of the gods. Contemporary research underscores the importance of street green spaces to human well-being. There is a relationship between de-stressing and nature, as noted in the Atlantic’s October 2015 feature on The Nature Cure.
A Tucson Environmental Stewardship Evolves
Trees for Tucson emerged as a program of Tucson Clean & Beautiful, a grassroots community group which began as a litter cleanup and prevention program in 1984. Since then, the Tucson Clean & Beautiful mission has inspired hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours, inspiring citizen stewards to care for and maintain hundreds of parks, and participate in recycling & Waste Reduction programs, conferences and youth landscape training. Trees for Tucson, a program to support low-cost shade tree planting for the community, emerged from the environmental conservation mantra in 1989. Over 8,000 trees are planted by citizens annually in Tucson through the program, with more than 150,000 trees planted to date. The benefits of Tucson trees, as noted on the website, include over 190 million gallons of stormwater interception and over 16,000 metric tons CO2 reduction.
Tucson now has more than 400 additional acres of new tree canopy cover, thanks to the Trees for Tucson program. Tucson Clean & Beautiful Membership & Communications Director B.J. Cordova comments on the importance of a culture of tree stewardship in a desert city:
Tree Canopy as Critical Cooler:
As public resources for landscape installation and maintenance continue to dwindle, as habitat has become more fragmented, and as our community’s urban heat island has continued to expand over the decades in tandem with development, it has become that much more important that the community at large choose to plant and maintain trees. The responsibility, and ability, for property owners at the neighborhood level to add trees and attractive landscapes, has always been in place in Tucson. Our urban trees and landscapes, whether along streets or in yards, help to keep our neighborhoods cooler and more beautiful, and provide critical wildlife linkages across the region.
In our desert climate, community stewardship of street trees — and indeed any trees — is critical to their initial survival after planting, and to ensure their long-term care. Particularly as drought cycles continue, it is imperative that a small amount of additional water be invested in maintaining a healthy canopy, which can be in the form of irrigation or water harvesting.
Trees cultivating community culture:
Whether with neighbors, through clubs and civic organizations, at schools, or at other nonprofit and community organization locations, tree planting and maintenance projects help cultivate community culture. These programs bring people together for a common purpose. Through the simple act of planting and caring for trees, personal connections (necessary to care about our neighbors and our places) are built, and people generally remain invested in the care of their newly planted trees.
We hear of students who return to their school a decade or more later — sometimes with their own children in tow — to marvel at the enormous tree that was once a small specimen planted by tiny hands. Planting parties in neighborhoods can also become annual or even semiannual events that people look forward to. Some of Tucson’s oldest neighborhoods have reinvested in tree canopy, several trees at a time over the past 25 years or more — resulting in many hundreds or even more than a thousand trees in a neighborhood. Those canopies have matured, resulting in a dramatically increased tree canopy along streetscapes and in people’s yards.
Environmental activism as protector of community and culture:
For more than 30 years, Tucson Clean & Beautiful has helped to build a community culture of hands-on stewardship of our environment, and education toward daily action as well as place-based projects as determined by community interest. Community volunteers are the eyes and ears for their adopted site, their favorite stand of desert trees, and for ensuring that resources are used wisely in our community by taking action within their own area, and teaching others how they can do the same. Even in times of scarce resources, volunteers in Tucson respond to a variety of community needs, including environmental restoration and improvement efforts. Supporting Tucson Clean & Beautiful, and like-minded non-profits, helps to continue to build our community culture of caring for our public spaces. The stewardship invites others to share in the excitement of long-term success, in building community and building a culture that values our interwoven natural and urban environment.
Commemorative tree dedications are also coordinated at Pantano River Park, near 22nd St. and Pantano Pkwy.Community members are able to purchase a tree and have it planted along The Loop in honor or remembrance of friends and loved ones. Modeled after El Paseo de los Arboles along the Santa Cruz River, which was completed in 1999, these trees are planted to shade, cool and beautify the river park, add habitat and reduce erosion. Each tree in a garden section is numbered, corresponding to names inscribed in a central plaza for that section. Presently the park is about halfway full, as tree planting continues to move northward along the Pantano Wash. Trees have been dedicated by neighbors of the park as well as by people from across town, elsewhere in the state, and even as far as the east coast — Many are doing so as an expression of grief and sorrow for those who have passed away, as in many ways for families and friends it represents as much of a closure as a new beginning, a continuation, a way to thrive from the adversity.
- Save the Date: Tree dedication ceremony at Pantano Park (May 6, 10am). A few additional trees have been pre-planted in response to continued community interest. More information on commemorative tree dedications: https://tucsoncleanandbeautiful.org/other-programs/commemorative-tree-parks/
- Learn more about Tucson Clean & Beautiful and the Trees for Tucson Program here.
- Sustaining America’s Urban Trees and Forests is a 2010 study of the USDA and Forest Service.
- National Arbor Day is April 29. Learn more about the Arbor Day Foundation and the national focus on trees, here.