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Growing Georgia’s knowledge of urban forestry

For over 28 years, the Georgia Urban Forest Council has led programs that promote, strategize, and fund urban forestry around the state, with the aim to help all communities supplement their growth by planning for and planting trees. We spoke to Mary Lynne Beckley, the executive director and sole full-time staffer at the Georgia Urban Forest Council, to get the inside scoop on how the Council helps Georgia grow, partners with other nonprofits, and faces the challenges of maintaining a state-wide presence with limited staff.

Tell us about the goals and methods of the Georgia Urban Forest Council.

Our goal is to provide education and resources for communities across the state, large and small, to help build their urban forestry programs. Towns and cities all over Georgia are building and expanding. We want them to keep trees in mind, because trees are so important to their citizens’ health and quality of life. 

In addition to quarterly educational workshops and programs around the state, we hold a statewide conference that aims to bring together arborists, foresters, landscape architects, elected officials, business owners, developers, and others —folks who make the decisions about landscape plans and trees. Once people get it—once the light bulb goes on—they begin doing the right thing and never turn back: they plant trees, they preserve trees, they incorporate trees in their planning.

We also started the Georgia ReLeaf program in 2011, after tornadoes rolled through North Georgia. Many cities and towns lost a large portion of tree canopy, and one way we could help them recover was to help them to re-plant and provide grants for trees and supplies. Since its founding, we've expanded ReLeaf to fund tree-planting in community projects that benefit veterans.

We’ve raised funds in partnership with Georgia Power and other companies, which we're quite grateful for. We also rely on individual donations: Anyone can contribute to Georgia ReLeaf and help us plant trees across the state.

How do you partner with other nonprofits that have similar missions?

We started Georgia ReLeaf in cooperation with the Georgia Forestry Commission, and we are working with the Commission and Trees Atlanta for the second year in a row to present the next Mayor’s Symposium & Tree City USA Celebration in February. The goal of our 2016 symposium was to attract elected officials not just to educate them, but to hear about what they're doing, commend them, and spotlight the good work many officials are doing around the state for trees. At this year’s symposium, we'll have talks on varied urban forestry topics from speakers and recognize Georgia’s Tree City USA communities, Tree Campus USA colleges and universities, and Tree Line USA utility companies.

As a small organization with a big footprint, what are some of the challenges you face, and how have you met them?

It's a big state, and we want to get to all corners. To do that with a limited staff, we use a certain number of board members as well as the efforts of our helpful and cohesive membership network. I find that tree people are the most generous and grounded (pun intended) people on earth. Everybody has the same goal—it’s all about healthy trees—so everybody wants to help each other.

We rely on our network throughout the state to let us know who needs help: which communities need programs, which workshops need to be taught and where to hold them, as well as who our up-and-coming urban forestry leaders are, and how can we help them. Keeping those lines of communication open is probably the biggest challenge and the biggest goal of my job. It’s also the biggest joy: being in contact with so many folks who share a love of trees and the recognition that trees are, and should be, an extremely high priority in the community.

Like I say, once the light bulb goes on for people who, right now, are cutting down trees haphazardly and irresponsibly, they will stop, and they will say, “I see why these trees are important, why we need them, why we need to work around them and build with them and plan with them," Trees and people are connected: psychologically, physically, mentally, and spiritually. It's all there. We just have to help people see the forest for the trees—so to speak. 

Rachel Letcher is communications coordinator at the Georgia Center for Nonprofits.

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