San Jose’s Urban Forest Rooted in Nonprofit’s Work

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March 8, 2012; Source: San Jose Mercury News

The City of San Jose, Calif. plans to plant 100,000 trees by 2022 as part of its 10-point “Green Vision,” adopted in 2007. The City is partnering with Our City Forest, a nonprofit with a mission to cultivate a green and healthy San Jose metropolis through community engagement. City Arborist Ralph Mize states, “Our City Forest is the primary mechanism for attaining the tree planting goal,” adding that the city itself has no tree planting function except in a very limited way, such as street meridians. He calls Our City Forest “the primary tree planting force in the valley.”

Our City Forest was founded in 1994. Based on its 2011 audited financial statements, Our City Forest had a budget of just over $1.7 million. The nonprofit has a staff of eight and draws on 35 trained AmeriCorps volunteers and volunteer trainers that are known as the Tree Amigos.

Transforming San Jose into a greener city—in the literal, leafy way—is a noble proposition that will require significant ongoing investment. “If trees aren’t properly planted and cared for,” executive director Rhonda Berry says, “they’ll die.”

Often confused as a division of the city government, about 26 percent of Our City Forest’s government grants revenue in 2011 was obtained from the City of San Jose. In addition, the city provides about $93,000 of in-kind operating support in the form of donated land for Our City Forest’s nascent nursery business. The balance of Our City Forest’s government funding is currently drawn from state and federal agencies. Berry expects these sources will dry up due to expected budget cuts in the near term. She aims to mitigate this by diversifying the organization’s funding base through the nursery business.

While at first blush it appears that Our City Forest may be getting the short end of the stick as the workhorse behind the city’s lofty promise of 100,000 new trees by 2022, the nonprofit seems to be benefitting from this relationship as well. Our City Forest increased its overall budget by about nine percent between 2010 and 2011, and achieved a $247,000 surplus in 2011. The organization is also in its second year of launching a viable-sounding nursery business. Compared to many other nonprofits in San Jose that were forced to shrink and now experience deficits, Our City Forest ended 2011 green and strong. We hope they can continue this way.  – Paula Smith Arrigoni