By Aimee Welch.
The weather is warming up, flowers are blooming, trees are sprouting brand new leaves – April is the perfect month to celebrate Earth Day… and Arbor Day! Trees provide shade, help reduce pollution and dust and provide food and shelter for animals. Trees help us reduce stress, lowering blood pressure and releasing muscle tension. They increase property values, absorb carbon dioxide and other gases, and release oxygen into the air. One large tree can provide a day’s supply of oxygen for up to four people. Aimee Esposito is the executive director of Trees Matter, a Phoenix-based environmental education nonprofit dedicated to finding ways to increase the tree canopy in Valley to provide shade, especially to the most vulnerable, and educate people so generations to come can enjoy the benefits of trees.
Aimee Welch (AW): One of the goals of Trees Matter is to promote an increased tree canopy in the Valley. Why is that so important?
Aimee Esposito (AE): As trees grow and age, they get stronger, unlike other forms of infrastructure like roads or buildings. Planting new trees and maintaining trees we already have provides a better future for the Valley of the Sun. When we invest in trees, we invest in better health and richer communities. Trees reduce pollution, reduce stress, and encourage people to go outside and enjoy the world while also getting some exercise. More importantly, trees combat our excessive heat issues by providing shade and putting out water into the air through transpiration. Unfortunately, in some areas of the Valley there is a disparity of trees. These communities tend to be lower-income and are more susceptible to the dangers of heat. We prioritize these areas when looking at increasing trees in the community.
AW: What role does Trees Matter play in helping to promote this cause?
AE: We have multiple programs that help shade the Valley. One of our programs is with the Salt River Project (SRP) where thousands of homeowners and renters come to a class to learn the importance of strategically planting and caring for trees to reduce the need for energy use. One of our newer programs, Trees for Schools, focuses on the equity issue of trees by prioritizing schools in lower-income areas lacking shade. This is a fun and engaging experience for students, who gain the hands-on learning experience of both planting a tree and investing in their community and school campus. On the tastier side, our Urban Food Forest program provides classes and events on local trees that provide food, including native trees like Mesquite. It’s a fun and flavorful way to learn about another benefit our trees provide. We also provide an “Ask an Arborist” Facebook group where anyone can ask a question about their trees and get a response from a volunteer arborist. To aid in this, we have a tree database with a list of tree species that grow in the Valley. Finally, we are working on an advocacy resource page where citizens can learn how to help advocate on tree issues with their local government.
AW: Are you ever surprised by the reactions you get from people as you educate them about the current situation with regards to trees?
AE: Our community intuitively knows we need more trees. Our challenge is that we have a great deal of people who moved here from somewhere else and may think trees don’t grow here or have trouble knowing how to plant and grow trees in an urban desert area. One of the most surprising aspects of our work for people is that trees provide food they never realized. For instance, when Palo Verdes have green pods around late March to April, you can eat them right off the tree, throw them in a salad, or steam them like edamame. The more mindful we are about the trees around us, the more likely we will value them. That’s where our Urban Food Forest program excels.
AW: What do you feel is the biggest threat to the tree canopy in the Valley?
AE: Our biggest threat to trees is systematic. It’s the disappearing green spaces and land for trees. It’s also a lack of understanding of what a tree needs to thrive, and the lack of funding for tree maintenance and plantings. For developers, many times trees are the last aspect of a plan, and their roots or canopies are not considered when planted. For cities, capacity to plant and maintain trees is a challenge. For residential areas, there is an educational need on how to plant and properly care for a tree. For landscapers, many are not arborists and are not trained to prune trees, and a badly pruned tree may die or never meet its full potential.
AW: In a perfect world, what does the tree canopy in the Valley look like 20 years from now?
AE: It is tree-lined streets, especially at bus stops and major pedestrian areas. It is trees planted at homes where they will help beautify and cool their houses. It is clusters of trees in pocket parks and more tree areas in our larger parks. It is a diversity of tree species that people are excited to engage with, whether it is to sit under, walk by, climb, or eat from. Our vision is a Valley where for now and the future, all generations have lifelong access to the benefits of trees. If we want to have this vision, we need to maintain and protect the trees we have now and plant even more for our future.
AW: What is one key takeaway you can give readers who want to do something good to help trees this Earth Day?
AE: We love April because it has both Earth Day and Arbor Day [last Friday in April]. We recommend planting a tree in your yard, let your council person know you care about trees, or you can sign up to volunteer with us! Visit us at treesmatter.org.
Aimee Welch is a freelance writer and the editor of Green Living Magazine. She lives in Chandler, Arizona, with her family.