This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Openlands TreeKeeper’s Program. In that time, over 2,200 passionate advocates for nature have taken the TreeKeepers Course, learning the basics of trees and tree care. TreeKeepers have dedicated their time and energy to learning how to prune, plant, and advocate for the Chicago region’s urban forest. In honor of TreeKeepers’ 30th anniversary, Openlands is looking at the tremendous impact that TreeKeepers have made over the past five years, especially the important work that these dedicated volunteers have accomplished throughout the pandemic.
One of the most exciting new developments of the last five years is the leadership that TreeKeepers have taken to create local Chapters. TreeKeepers have taken it upon themselves to plan workdays and work with a variety of partners, including park districts, Alderpeople, municipalities, and others, to plant new trees in places where they’re most needed and perform ongoing pruning to keep existing trees healthy.
The most robust and first TreeKeepers Chapter is based in Hyde Park and was started by Nancy Joseph, who completed the TreeKeepers course in 2013 and proudly wears the badge of TreeKeeper 1,189. According to Nancy, who originally trained as a Master Naturalist with the Forest Preserves of Cook County before taking the TreeKeepers course, becoming a TreeKeeper completely changed the way she engages with the world around her:
“I can’t walk down the street now without looking at a tree that needs to be pruned and what I would do to that tree. It has changed the way I move around my neighborhood significantly. Working in some of the neighborhoods where we work has really made me appreciate the difference between areas that have a lot of trees versus those that don’t have trees.”
These realizations led her to notice how much work needed to be done in her home community of Hyde Park, where she has lived for 24 years. Nancy initially began pruning cherry trees on her own at Jackson Park with the help of Jerome Scott, the District Forester of the Chicago Park District and also a volunteer TreeKeeper. Eventually, Nancy connected with other TreeKeepers in Hyde Park and formed a group that met for workdays twice per month, once to prune trees on the street and once at a local park. The group grew over time along with a dedicated core group of people in Hyde Park. They are often joined by TreeKeepers from all around the city and suburbs to help prune trees.
While the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily put TreeKeepers activities on hold, once the group received permission from the Park District and Openlands, they started weekly pruning events. According to Nancy, these events helped provide a sense of purpose during the challenging global crisis:
“It was exciting to have something to do. We had a core group that would come weekly and would prune huge stretches in Washington Park and the Midway [Plaisance]. It was a nice respite for all of us, and we got an awful lot of trees pruned.”
Now, the Hyde Park Chapter has resumed twice-monthly pruning sessions. The impact of their dedicated work cannot be underestimated, and their work helped nearly double the number that TreeKeepers pruned from 2,000 to 4,000 trees.
The Hyde Park TreeKeepers Chapter is an example of the impact that committed TreeKeepers can have in their community over time, and there is an opportunity to form TreeKeeper-led chapters, both inside and outside of Chicago.
One of the newest burgeoning chapters is located in Downers Grove, where there is currently an exciting collaboration between the Downers Grove Park District and the TreeKeepers Program. Mike Stelter currently serves as the Superintendent of Natural Resources at Downers Grove Park District and approached Openlands TreeKeepers Program Manager Al De Reu in 2019 about forming a partnership. Stelter was developing an urban forest management plan, and the Park District identified the need to involve citizens in forestry work and engage an active group of volunteers in tree care and planting.
The TreeKeepers program was included in the urban forest management plan, and while the creation of the Downers Grove TreeKeepers Chapter was temporarily put on hold due to the pandemic, small workdays began in the fall of 2020 and have continued since.
One of the biggest challenges that the Downers Grove Chapter faces is the need for more trained TreeKeepers based in the suburbs. The majority of TreeKeepers are based in Chicago, and Stelter hopes to garner more interest from local volunteers in the training and grow a group of dedicated TreeKeepers in Dupage County.
Curtis Fahlberg is one of a few Dupage County residents trained as a TreeKeeper, and he is currently leading the charge for the Downers Grove Chapter. Curtis was trained in 2019 and is currently a Hinsdale resident, where he says he has benefitted from the dense tree canopy and the diverse array of species that were planted in response to Dutch elm disease.
According to Curtis, he hopes to get local residents engaged with the TreeKeepers Program, as he says it is a rewarding experience that benefits both individuals and the local community: “Some new volunteers are getting a shovel in their hands for the first time and they are getting their hands dirty for the first time. They just have no idea what’s inside these root balls and it’s quite an adventure. It’s been fabulous therapy throughout the pandemic.”
On a recent workday in October, Curtis described how personal the planting of a tree can be. He planted a sweet gum tree for his niece Abigail and her husband Mike, who will be having a baby soon. He hopes to bring their family to visit the tree and watch it grow over time.
“It’s a very hopeful thing to plant a tree,” he explained.
TreeKeeper Nancy also spoke of her hope for the future of the TreeKeepers Program, explaining the value of expanding chapters into more communities:
“I hope that people who have had the training find that now is an important time to get involved with trees, as they’re so critical to so many of the ecosystem services of an urban environment. We really need people to get out and help. I hope we can encourage more people to create groups in their neighborhood.”
You can learn more about the TreeKeepers Program and how to get involved with the creation of local chapters here. We look forward to another 30 years!