Caretaking for the city’s trees

If you found yourself standing on the roof of Oregon State’s Valley Library, the dark greens of cedars and maples that skirt the town’s buildings and streets would perhaps call attention to themselves as they never have before. It would be difficult to take the town’s trees for granted from that vantage point, and easier to see them as a network, a sort of citified ecosystem.

If you looked closer, you might find migratory birds passing through, or maybe a tree house or two. You’d see trees under utility lines and perhaps pushing up asphalt. You’d be observing what Paul Ries calls the “urban forest.” It’s also what he considers his professional domain.

Paul Ries demonstrates tree pruning

Ries manages urban forestry statewide for the Oregon Department of Forestry, and is an affiliate faculty member in the College of Forestry at OSU. He has been vital to creating an urban forestry curriculum here as well as providing continuing education for professionals around the state..

“We take the benefit we get from trees around us for granted,” says Ries. “The idea behind urban forestry is we can manage those trees for the values or the ecosystem services they provide for us.”

Some of those benefits are environmental, like trees’ absorbing storm water runoff and mitigating sound.  Some of them are health-related. Ries can cite a University of Michigan study that found that hospital patients with a view of the natural environment use less pain medication than patients with no window at all or who look out over a city or concrete.

Trees have measurable economic value, as well. Research conducted by the University of Washington showed that people are willing to pay 11 percent more for goods in business districts that have trees than in ones that don’t. Other studies have shown that people who live in treed neighborhoods have higher property values. Ries himself helped with some US Forest Service research that found that for every dollar invested in urban forestry, $2.70 worth of benefits are provided – because of trees.

“Research allows us to put dollars and cents on the value of trees, so we can convince decision makers that it’s worth the investment to plant trees in their cities,” says Ries.

According to Ries, the quantifiable research on trees’ benefit to people is relatively new, and was not available when he started as Oregon’s urban forester 19 years ago. Urban forestry itself is a fairly recent phenomenon, the term not being coined until the 1960s.

It’s relaying trees’ impact to others that makes Ries a passionate educator – both on campus and statewide. At Oregon State, he has been an affiliate faculty member for the past seven years, with the goal of being the bridge to the college having a full time urban forestry professor.  He was vital in creating the first urban forestry course at Oregon State, which he teaches via eCampus. He taught an arboriculture course on campus this past quarter.

Perhaps Ries’ biggest goal, though, is to create the first cross-department major option in urban forestry in the country, which students would be able to choose through either through the horticulture or natural resources programs. Ries says that OSU was only three courses shy of being able to create the option, and he has received approval to create and teach those classes in the next two years.

“I want to interest undergrads in urban forestry either as a career opportunity or a body of knowledge they need in something else they’re doing,” Ries says. “It’s a multidisciplinary endeavor. It brings in horticulture, natural resources, urban planning, land use planning, as well as forestry. And the students I’ve had in my classes are very interested, knowledgeable and conscientious about the environment.”

Ries’ students are routinely impressed by the level of complexity involved in planting trees. It’s important, Ries says, to plant the right trees in the right place. It’s important to consider the hardscape conflicts they might come in contact with, like the sidewalk, like sewers, buildings and utility lines. It’s important, too, to consider how the soil might have been turned upside down because of construction, and to think about what trees might thrive there, how deep to plant them and how much water they need. And that’s just for starters.

One of the most challenging aspects of being an urban forester that Ries must relate to his students is managing the relationship people have with trees. “I’ve had to mark trees for removal that are going to fall, and people tell me, ‘but it’s still green.’” Ries says. “So I have to help them understand their expectations, and what trees need to survive.”

When he’s not teaching at Oregon State, Ries can be found providing continuing education to professionals and creating forestry programs for towns statewide.  Most recently he traveled throughout Oregon to provide hazard tree recognition to employees working in state parks, and he is helps develop urban forestry management programs for the cities across the state.  In some respects, he serves as the de-facto forester for cities around Oregon that don’t already have one

“It’s a great profession because you’re always doing something different. It’s very diverse,” Ries says. “Trees provide so many services to us that have a big impact on our lives.”

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