By Openlands’ embedded journalist, Carlyn Kranking
In his first few months in office, President Joe Biden has set goals to protect the nation’s public lands and fortify the country against climate change.
With his January Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad, Biden directed the nation to prioritize climate in domestic and foreign policy agendas. On March 31, he unveiled the American Jobs Plan to raise employment following the pandemic and improve the country’s infrastructure. The plan is a $2 trillion investment that Biden intends to pay for by increasing corporate taxes.
Amid the goals of improving public transit, fixing highways and bridges, and extending access to broadband, these policies also aim to improve the country’s public lands. Notably, the plans fund a Civilian Climate Corps program to create jobs that help promote resilience against climate change, and they set a goal to conserve 30% of U.S. lands and waters by 2030.
These goals closely align with Openlands’ work in the greater Chicago area. Openlands helped to shape a bill that imagines how a Civilian Conservation Corps might look today. Additionally, the Openlands Forestry Crew and certified TreeKeepers help plant and care for trees, which are an important form of infrastructure that limits flooding and improves air quality.
Creating green jobs
The New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps put about 3 million young men to work over its nine years of operation. The Corps members from nearly 90 years ago planted billions of trees and built infrastructure for parks and natural lands. Today, nonprofit or government-run corps are descended from the first CCC. And now, the president is making a push for a modern incarnation of this initiative.
Biden’s American Jobs Plan sets aside $10 billion to fund a new Civilian Climate Corps, which would “put a new, diverse generation of Americans to work conserving our public lands and waters, bolstering community resilience, and advancing environmental justice.”
While the details of this plan aren’t fully ironed out, there are a few bills in Congress that attempt to imagine how a modern CCC would look. Last fall, Sen. Dick Durbin of Ill. and Rep. Bobby Rush of Chicago introduced identical bills called the RENEW Conservation Corps Act. Openlands has worked closely with Durbin’s office on this plan, which was reintroduced in both the house and senate recently with amendments.
Durbin’s plan would employ one million people over the course of five years. While the original CCC enlisted mostly white men, the corps groups envisioned by the RENEW Act would mirror the demographics of the city or state they work in.
Funding for a Civilian Climate Corps would build on the work that groups are already doing today. Some corps members currently work on environmental projects such as removing wildfire fuel, putting energy- and water-saving retrofits on homes, thinning forests, and installing solar panels, among other things. The RENEW Act, or a similar corps initiative, would fund more projects, including tree planting, wetland restoration, and invasive species control.
“We just want to make sure that the key elements of the Durbin bill […] are maintained, whatever program emerges,” said Jerry Adelmann, president and CEO of Openlands. Already, he said, there is “growing support from all over the country for some program like this.”
Trees as infrastructure
Sen. Durbin’s bill, as originally introduced, aims to mobilize American workers to address the backlog of infrastructure projects at the federal, state, and local levels.
There are “many ‘shovel-ready’ projects and green infrastructure maintenance backlog projects that would improve […] quality of life, outdoor experiences, and access to outdoor recreation,” reads the text of the original bill.
Green infrastructure can improve the quality of American cities. In addition to bridges, highways, and buildings, green space is part of the built environment of an urban area. Incorporating trees, parks, and gardens into a cityscape can help control flooding and improve air quality.
Green schoolyards provide spaces for students to learn and exercise. They’re built in a way that helps reduce urban flooding by replacing impervious surfaces like concrete or asphalt with greenery or special materials that catch water. Openlands is a partner with Healthy Schools Campaign in the Space to Grow © program, which has transformed 30 schoolyards in Chicago. Trees also help capture stormwater before it flows into the sewers, which helps limit flooding and may decrease the cost of stormwater treatment.
Trees are an important part of green infrastructure. They improve air quality by filtering out pollutants. A large, healthy urban forest could reduce short-term levels of local air pollution by at least 5%, according to a 2010 report from the Morton Arboretum. Trees can also decrease energy needs in homes by providing shade in summer and respite from wind in winter. Plus, they can reduce residents’ stress.
Openlands and volunteers plant trees in Chicago and its near south suburbs through the TreePlanters Grants program. Community volunteers self-organize, choose where to place new trees, and gather the community for a planting event. The Openlands Forestry Crew provides the trees, supplies, and on-site training.
This year, Openlands welcomed the inaugural class of its Arborist Registered Apprenticeship trainees, who are working to become arborists in the Chicago area. These apprentices and Openlands’ forestry team are planting trees across the city, with a focus on Chicago’s Southwest Side. There, the tree canopy cover is lower than that of Chicago as a whole, said Tom Ebeling, community arborist with Openlands.
“There’s a lot of people that live there, and there’s also a lot of polluters that are active in the area,” Ebeling said. “So it’s got a lower tree canopy [cover] and a high burden of pollution.”
If the proposed federal legislation moves forward, it might open opportunities for more projects like these to be done across the country.