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Arbor Day RVA works to help city meet tree canopy goals

A person pulls at thick undergrowth
Addison Johnson, a horticulturist, cuts away privet, an invasive plant species, during a Wednesday Arbor Day RVA event. (Photos: Patrick Larsen/VPM News)

Reforest Richmond is working with grassroots groups and the city to celebrate Arbor Day RVA. The partner organizations have planned tree plantings, giveaways and more in an effort to build momentum toward the city’s tree-cover goals. 

The Richmond 300 master plan sets a goal to expand the city’s tree-canopy coverage from 42% to 60% by 2037 — part of its broader goals to improve public spaces and reduce exposure to extreme heat. 

On Wednesday, volunteers went off the trail at Huguenot Flatwater Park to clear out invasive plant species — including privet and wintercreeper — that threaten native plants. 

Laura Greenleaf, master naturalist and founding member of the James River Park System’s Invasive Species Task Force, said vining invasive plants can kill well-established trees by outcompeting them for nutrients and sunlight. That harms ecosystems that have grown to depend on certain species for habitat and food. 

“A lot of the trees in Huguenot Flatwater are so overwhelmed by vines that you can no longer identify the species,” Greenleaf said. “At that point, the tree can’t even photosynthesize.” 

Addison Johnson is a horticulturist and was one of the volunteers at Wednesday’s tree-freeing. His focus for the day was the invasive shrub privet — which Johnson has a particular dislike for. 

“Right now, around this area, you’re starting to see more the problem of it,” Johnson said. Privet’s hardy: “[I]t’s an evergreen and … has a vigorous root system. But then it has these little berries. ... They get everywhere, and then the understory is just this.” 

Privet and wintercreeper both got into the local ecosystem because they’re popular for landscaping. But they can be hard to control, forcing people like Greenleaf and Johnson to take the piecemeal approach of freeing trees already bound by woody vines. 

A collaborative campaign

Tree-freeing is just one of the Arbor Day RVA activities. Events hosted by the Richmond Community ToolBank, VCU Sustainability, Richmond Public Schools and more continue through Sunday. 

Reforest Richmond — a collaborative campaign that works with city departments and groups like Southside ReLEAF, Capitol Trees and the James River Association — is also giving away trees and holding planting events around the city. 

Daniel Klein, founder of Reforest Richmond and Richmond Tree Committee chairperson, said the campaign is looking to help the city reach its 60% canopy goal. 

Klein said the campaign focuses on tree deserts in Southside and other parts of the city. Research from the Science Museum of Virginia shows those areas experience dangerously hot days — which cause heat illnesses and exacerbate underlying conditions like asthma — more frequently than parts of the city with better tree cover. 

Previously redlined neighborhoods, which were systematically underinvested in due to their residents’ race, tend to have less tree coverage than other parts of the city. 

In its first year, 2020, Klein said Arbor Day RVA was thrown together last minute to offload most of the 12,000 trees the city received for free from Dominion Energy. But by year two, it was a way to highlight the efforts of the city’s many tree groups. 

“Fall is the best time to plant,” Klein said, noting that most of those groups already have events at this time of year — Arbor Day RVA was just a way to coordinate and showcase their efforts.  

“It’s a great meeting place — it's a good coalition builder,” Klein said.  

Now, Klein has a partner in the city.

Qui Nguyen works in Richmond’s Urban Forestry Division as a community liaison and volunteer coordinator. Nguyen and Klein are both interested in continuing to build the coalition. 

“No one organization can do it all. No one local government or division can do it all. It has to be a collaborative effort,” Nguyen said. “Not only is it more sustainable that way, but also it’s more equitable.” 

Reaching 60% tree canopy

Despite the successes of Arbor Day RVA, Klein said the city has a lot of work to do to reach its goal of 60% canopy. Places that don’t have trees need them, places with trees need them maintained, and old trees need to be removed and replaced.  

He said the city needs to hire an urban forester, who could coordinate efforts with a range of city departments. 

“They think of the city as a forest with lots of different ecosystems and communities that need really bespoke attention,” Klein said. 

The city has appropriated funds for a forester in its budget, but City Council must approve an ordinance to create the position before the city can hire someone. Klein and Nguyen said they’ve been working on a job description with the Sierra Club and Southside ReLEAF. 

“This would be the first time we have one,” Klein said. “That, to me, is really exciting.” 

Klein said the city also needs better tree canopy requirements for developers on private land. The General Assembly recently passed a law allowing localities like Richmond to set standards for developers, but the city hasn’t set any. 

“There’s a lot of things that are starting to come and fall into place, but we do have ... quite an uphill battle,” Klein said. 

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.