Eric Candela is Senior Manager of the award-winning Community ReLeaf program at American Forests, and guides its implementation in urban centers throughout the country. Eric gained an appreciation for responsible environmental stewardship while working for the late Congressman John Dingell Jr, from whom he also learned the value of developing multi-disciplinary collaborations. Prior to joining American Forests, Eric served as the Director of Governmental Relations for The Greening of Detroit.
Eric was interviewed by Greg Az Clark on behalf of Narrative Paths Journal. Greg is a resident of Oakland, California, and is engaged in tree preservation issues in the San Francisco Bay Area.
NP: Can you share the story of American Forests? What inspired the founders?
Candela: American Forests is the oldest national nonprofit conservation organization in the United States. Since our founding in 1875, we have been the pathfinders for creating healthy forests from wilderness to cities. In the early 1900s, we rallied forest advocates to champion creation of the U.S. Forest Service. In 2018, we won a decade-long campaign persuading Congress to provide stable funding for preventing and fighting forest fires. Now we are focused on building a reforestation movement in America, from cities to large, rural landscapes.
While rural forested lands have long been appreciated as a tool for climate mitigation, urban trees and forests have been surprisingly overlooked as a pathway to reduce carbon emissions and promote social equity. American Forests creates healthy and resilient forests that deliver essential benefits for climate, people, water and wildlife in both rural landscapes and cities.
NP: What are the goals of American Forests? Which communities does American Forests serve?
Candela: By 2030, American Forests will plant at least 4 billion trees across North America and in 100 cities, every socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhood will achieve a passing Tree Equity Score—an indicator that the neighborhood has enough trees in the right places so all people benefit from trees. To achieve these goals, we lead in forestry innovation and place-based partnerships with local organizations and communities to plant and restore forests.
NP: Can you describe the challenges facing our urban forests in the US, and what programs are in place to meet these? What work still needs to be done?
Candela: The biggest challenge we face with our urban forests is ensuring every resident experiences the benefits that they provide. Trees provide social, health and environmental benefits that can save lives and improve physical and mental well-being. For instance, on a hot day trees can help reduce surrounding air temperatures by as much as 9° F. Approximately 1,200 heat-related deaths and countless heat-related illnesses are prevented because of trees each year. But too often, a map of tree cover in almost any American city is also a map of income and race. Neighborhoods that can benefit the most from trees often have the fewest number of them. Through our urban forestry program, Community ReLeaf, we help develop plans for planting and caring for city trees. Through our Career Pathways program, we help identify and formalize career opportunities, such as jobs in tree maintenance, mapping and making products out of city trees that are removed.
NP: I’ve heard the term Tree Equity used in the context of our urban forests. Could you explain Tree Equity, and why it is so important?
Candela: Environmental inequities have left economically disadvantaged communities, vulnerable populations and communities of color more exposed to environmental hazards and less able to cope with climate change impacts, including more intense heat waves and poorer air quality. Trees help mitigate these impacts. Tree Equity means there are enough trees in the neighborhoods that need them the most. Creating Tree Equity in cities is important because everyone deserves access to quality green space and tree lined neighborhoods, especially people who have historically been denied these resources.
NP: American Forests has developed the Tree Equity Score. How does it work and who is it for? How do you anticipate local communities will use it?
Candela: Our new Tree Equity Score helps municipalities prioritize urban forestry investments by identifying which neighborhoods have the greatest need. City government employees, community activists, urban foresters and others can use the scores to make the case for planting trees in the neighborhoods that need them most, and allocate the resources needed to do so. For example, advocates might use Tree Equity Score to help make the case for planting trees in neighborhoods where people struggle to pay their energy bills or experience higher rates of unemployment. Much like streets and electrical lines, trees are essential infrastructure. They are vital to the health, wealth and well-being of communities.