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Tree Trust: Planting the Seeds for a More Equitable Minnesota

Photo provided by Tree Trust

For more than four decades, Tree Trust has been working to solve two persistent societal problems: unemployment and the degradation of our natural habitat.

The St. Paul-based nonprofit provides employment and job training while also planting trees around the state to enhance Minnesota’s urban canopy. Tree Trust has roughly 600 job-readiness participants and planted 3,430 trees in 2019.

Since it started, Tree Trust has planted and distributed almost half a million trees in the state.

Rolf Svendsen and Don Willeke started Tree Trust in 1976 in response to Dutch elm disease, a fungal disease that has caused major devastation to elm trees in Minnesota. The two realized they needed to find a solution to not only remove the dead trees, but also plant new ones.

Svendsen and Willeke figured they could solve for another problem along the way: the high unemployment rate. Data from the St. Louis Federal Reserve shows that Minnesota had a 5.6% jobless rate in 1976.

Ever since, Tree Trust has stayed true to its original mission of transforming lives and landscapes.

The organization hosts community tree plantings, educates local students through planting projects at schools, and engages volunteers throughout the Metro. In addition, Tree Trust Landscape Services is a professional tree care and landscape contracting division whose net profits support Tree Trust programs.

“Our forestry department has planted trees with volunteers from Ada to Ely to Winona and all points in between, but we mostly concentrate our efforts on the Metro,” said Tree Trust Director of Community Forestry Karen Zumach.

More trees don’t just mean a greater canopy. Planting also helps reduce air pollution and heat in densely populated areas like Minneapolis and St. Paul. Trees can reduce storm water runoff, too. Zumach says trees act as buffers against a warming climate.

“The carbon stored in an urban tree is two to three times the carbon stored in a traditional forest tree,” she said. “Why? Because urban trees grow faster and capture more light, therefore they grow larger and store more carbon.”

Tree Trust’s job readiness programs provide training, internships and paid opportunities for young people who face barriers to employment. It’s a way to give them confidence and hands-on work experience.

One Tree Trust participant, for example, came to the organization after being involved in the justice system. With the support and training of Tree Trust job coaches, she was able to balance being a single parent and finding a job, with the intention of obtaining her degree to start her own business.

“We believe everyone deserves the opportunity to succeed, and empowered youth and young adults have the potential to change and influence our community,” said Tree Trust Executive Director and CEO Jared Smith.

Data from Tree Trust’s 2018 annual report states that more than half of its program participants were people of color.

“Through hands-on training and connection, the lives of the youth and young adults are transformed, helping them to build brighter futures in our community,” said Smith.

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