WSU partners with community colleges to enhance urban forests

Deciduous trees with green and yellow leaves cover a wet walkway in a city park.
(photo by Adobe Stock)

PUYALLUP, Wash. — Washington State University is working with four community colleges to improve tree canopy cover in several urban areas throughout the state.

The five-year project, designed to increase resilience amid a changing climate, is supported by a nearly $1.8 million Inflation Reduction Act grant from the USDA Forest Service Urban and Community Forestry Program. WSU researchers will collaborate with faculty and students at Spokane Community College, Highline Community College (Des Moines, Washington), Whatcom Community College (Bellingham, Washington), and Tacoma Community College to create thriving urban forests in neighborhoods near those schools.

“What’s exciting about this partnership is that we’ll have time to build, adapt, and learn from each other,” said Joey Hulbert, a post-doctoral research associate at the WSU Puyallup Research & Extension Center and the project’s principal investigator. “Heat waves disproportionately affect communities without any trees, and our work is geared toward increasing canopy in those disadvantaged areas.”

Hulbert will work with WSU colleagues Tim Kohlhauff, Marianne Elliott, and Molly Darr, who are co-principal investigators on the project.

Partners at the U.S. Forest Service hope the project will result in a more diverse and skilled workforce while inspiring colleges throughout the country to embrace similar approaches, said Alyssa Chen, an urban and community forestry program specialist with the federal agency.

“Our team is excited to support the work of Dr. Hulbert and partner faculty to nurture the next generation of urban forestry professionals,” Chen said. “This project represents a significant step toward creating more resilient communities across the United States.”

Complementing existing curricula, WSU will work with community college faculty to engage their students through tree equity lessons and labs, campus tree giveaways, and tree planting events tailored to each school’s geographical location.

Three people at a WSU Puyallup Research and Extension Center information booth surrounded by small trees.
Tree Giveaway at the Highline College Earth Week Resource Fair in Des Moines, Wash. (photo by WSU CAHNRS)

The grant will also fund student internships focused on tree health and urban heat research as well as community science projects that involve data collection and invasive species monitoring, increasing the number of individuals observing and advocating for Washington’s urban forests.

“We have already initiated some curriculum collaborations with other faculty within our college and other community colleges,” said Kristen Harrison, a biology and environmental science instructor at Tacoma Community College. “I am most excited to work on the cultural importance of cedar trees and the science behind their recent dieback. Our students are excited about the internship opportunities.”

The project will help students take what they’ve learned during their coursework, internships, and other activities, and return to their communities with knowledge that can benefit their neighbors.

“Engaging students from these areas in relevant coursework and place-based opportunities not only benefits their education but also contributes to civic engagement and workforce development in communities where tree canopy is thin and the need is vast,” Chen said.

A closeup of a student's hands as they hold a small tree before it gets potted.
Tacoma Community College students pot trees and take some home as part of the Douglas Fir Growth Race community science project. (photo by WSU CAHNRS)

Hulbert is hopeful that the work will also serve as an early opportunity to expose community college students to a field they might not be familiar with.

“A lot of these students are not necessarily on environmental science career tracks,” he said. “It’s a good opportunity to inspire them to work with trees and reach them before they really decide on a career path.”

The four community colleges are all located in census areas defined by the federal government’s Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool as overburdened and underserved, making them especially vulnerable to heat waves and the public health crises that frequently follow.

“We’re engaging the frontline communities — those that are, in theory, going to be most impacted by climate change,” Hulbert said. “We will hopefully reach people who would not be served otherwise through this type of research and science.”

By teaching stewardship of natural resources such as trees, creating an adaptable workforce, and promoting environmental health in underserved communities, the project’s ultimate goal is to create a Resilient Washington that can readily bounce back from extreme weather.

“Resiliency means being comfortable in a changing climate, and heat waves are a huge part of that,” Hulbert said. “This is a great opportunity for WSU to create trained professionals, adding to a workforce that’s capable of helping our communities adapt to a hotter and drier world.”

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