NYSUFC Board Member Rachel Holmes is the coordinator of The Nature Conservancy’s urban forestry program called Healthy Trees, Healthy Cities. She is also a Flamenco dancer and a wildland firefighter (read on!).
Can you tell us about your childhood influences that foreshadowed getting interested in urban forestry?
Rachel Holmes: I grew up in Clifton, New Jersey on a street that was lined with a diverse mix of mature trees that had been planted by a previous generation of homeowners. I remember riding my bike over heaved sidewalks and imagining that I was racing in a BMX course. When I was in fifth grade, the town decided to redo all the sidewalks. Rather than work around the trees, they took them all down! I actually went outside to yell at the men removing the trees. Concerned for my safety, my Mom actually took me away because I think she was afraid I would throw myself in between the workers and the trees.
I was driven away from my tree-lined street and came back to … nothing. It was a pretty painful experience and at the same time, a seminal moment in my appreciation of trees. Because I had been surrounded by trees in my early childhood, I knew what I was missing when they were taken down. It is important to me now to do what I can to help prevent other people from experiencing this.
The City replaced some of the trees with flowering pears, many of which came down in storms, including ours. A few years ago, I helped my parents pick out a good specimen of eastern redbud that is doing really well; my Mom and Dad frequently text me photos of it.
While I gained an early appreciation for urban nature, I was fortunate to experience what some would call the “wild” at a much bigger scale. Starting in sixth grade, I worked on my aunt and uncle’s ranch in Colorado, learning the ins and outs of ranch management including Western horsemanship. The ranch abutted Pike National Forest which is where I was first exposed to managed forests. This is also where I first witnessed the impacts of wildfire on forest ecosystems.
What has been your educational and career trajectory?
RH: As an undergrad at Rutgers I was a dual major in international environmental policy and religion. I was drawn to religious studies because I wanted to understand how our belief systems inform the way we think about our relationship to nature, and how religion can help us reimagine what it means to be a citizen on this planet.
After I got my bachelor’s I did research for a year in the Rutgers University Food Policy Institute, still ruminating on these topics. I applied to Yale Divinity School and Yale School of Forestry and became the first student to get joint Master’s degrees in that combination of fields. As a Catholic woman, I knew that a Master of Divinity and the training required to earn it would help me communicate my ideas and be heard among ordained leaders.
Starting in 2007, while working on those master’s degrees, I worked for the Urban Resources Initiative at Yale as a community forester in New Haven, Connecticut. Working alongside community volunteers, I first saw the ways that people who steward nature gain so much mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. It clicked for me that transformation of human lives can happen through nature’s restoration. It was this experience that led me to re-chart my course of study at the School of Forestry to pursue a Master of Forestry instead of environmental management. To be an effective urban forester—which I believe is more than my job, it is my vocation—I recognized that I needed the forestry training to be able to teach and inspire others to care about trees and forest systems, urban and otherwise. I also worked for the Green Skills program of the Urban Resources Initiative, which gave me the opportunity to work with youth and returning citizens. I am so grateful and indebted to the Urban Resources Initiative for providing the opportunity for such formative experiences early in my career.
As a Master of Forestry candidate, I studied silviculture and what some would call “traditional” or production forestry. I didn’t immediately appreciate the value of production forestry in the beginning, struggling to reconcile my personal environmental ethic with removing trees for human use. But then, through an internship at the Yale School Forest, I started to see how timber management was one of the best ways to manage a forest for perpetuity. I came to see how necessary it was for humans to carefully manage land for the benefit of all—people and nature. And some of that framework, and the decision-making tools I learned, have been invaluable to my work in urban forestry.
While finishing my Master of Forestry, I started working full time for a non-profit called Solar Youth in New Haven. I coordinated the preparation of a tree management plan for an affordable housing development in collaboration with 20 young people aged 13-25 who lived in the development. It took a little over a year. They came from a very diverse background in terms of skills, knowledge, ability, and interest level, so I had to do a fair amount of pre-training to get them to the point of using a DBH tape or a clinometer, for example. I was very proud of them for a number of reasons, including the fact that even though they were afraid to be seen as “do-gooders” in their neighborhood, they were out inventorying trees and doing social assessments several days a week.
From 2011 to 2013 I worked as the volunteer coordinator for the State of Connecticut Urban Forestry Program. From there I went to work for Groundwork Bridgeport (Connecticut) to create a similar program as I had done for Solar Youth, with some participants being referred through the court system. The job I have now with The Nature Conservancy opened up in July 2013, and I’ve been there since as the coordinator of the Conservancy’s national urban forestry program called Healthy Trees, Healthy Cities.
Please tell us more about your current position.
RH: Through my work now with Healthy Trees, Healthy Cities program, I primarily focus on teaching and encouraging the stewardship of trees and forests in cities through a variety of ways. For instance, I educate youth and the public at large about the impacts of non-native invasive pests and diseases. Our program is certainly supportive of tree planting initiatives and goals but my focus is more on the maintenance and management of mature trees and maintaining the existing canopy. We’ve been able to compliment the on-the-ground efforts of municipal governments like that of New York City, who provided a wish list to our program several years ago asking for collaboration on pest detection and stewardship for newly planted trees.
This program has afforded me the chance to continue working with youth and volunteers. One of my favorite parts of the job has been the establishment and coordination of youth-based tree health monitoring projects using a non-stressor-specific tree health monitoring protocol developed by US Forest Service Research Ecologist Dr. Rich Hallett.
Recently, I’ve been doing work with faith communities, especially in Louisville, Kentucky and Chicago. In Louisville I worked with a faith-based non-profit and our local chapter staff to create a protocol for evaluating the health and ecosystem services of sacred landscapes, like those properties on which houses of worship stand. This protocol is meant to complement the energy, waste, and water audits many faith communities complete as part of efforts to become more sustainable. The protocol also features an assessment that allows people to talk about what aspects of their local landscapes are important or sacred to them. It’s important to me that we conservationists make space for dialogue on what motivates us to care for those around us— human and nonhuman.
In Chicago, I’m working with President Obama’s former church, Trinity United Church of Christ, to develop workforce development programming for underemployed populations—like youth, veterans, and returning citizens—that trains people to be both champions of healthy living as well as stewards of the natural resources in their respective communities. I’m excited about this and how it gets me back to working with returning citizens and youth.
The last big focus is that I’m leading the development of a community and youth engagement strategy for the Conservancy’s Global Cities Program. It’s an exciting time at the Conservancy. We’ve always been committed to protecting nature for the benefit of all, but we’re now engaging in aspects of urban conservation that draw out and highlight the importance of people-focused outcomes as well.
What are your interests in your free time?
RH: I’ve been studying Flamenco for several years, and perform at various venues in Connecticut. I get a kick out of going from ruffled Flamenco dresses and heels to Nomex pants and boots as a wildland firefighter. I first became a wildland firefighter in 2012 when I was working for the State of Connecticut. Last summer, I was out on assignment in Idaho, on the western border of the Tetons from mid-August into September. I feel privileged to be able to go out on wildfire assignments. It feels like I’m doing something very concrete to steward nature and I enjoy the physically challenging nature of the work. It also means a lot to me to be able to support not only the forests themselves, but also the communities that depend on them. When I’m out on the line, I often think about the first time I saw the effects of wildfire in Colorado as an adolescent—I’m thankful for the ability to do this work now as an adult.
How is your involvement in the Council meaningful or helpful to you?
RH: Wow—in short, I am consistently impressed with the Council’s level of commitment to the advancement of the field of urban forestry in the State of New York and beyond. As the coordinator of a national program, I have seen many examples of state councils throughout the country. NYSUFC is by far one of the most impressive in terms of the professionalism of its members and the wealth of educational opportunities throughout the year. Plus, I get to meet some of the most passionate people urban forestry has to offer!
I absolutely love the ReLeaf Conference in July every year, which has become my opportunity to check in with old friends, make new ones, and be energized not just for the year ahead with the Council, but for the future of community-based urban forestry in general. I attribute so much of the strength of the Council and state urban forestry program to Mary Kramarchyk, the state urban forestry program director. I first met Mary when I was working for the State of Connecticut. She invited me to my first ReLeaf Conference in 2011 and made it her goal to make sure I felt welcome and part of the group. She introduced me to people like Lori Brockelbank, Andy Hillman, and rock stars like Nina Bassuk—people I’ve been lucky to learn from and interact with over the years. I truly felt part of the community from the start, even though I was coming over from your eastern neighbor, Connecticut!
In exchange for all the benefits I’ve received from NYSUFC, I see my way of “giving back” as promoting the example of the Council through my networks of partners throughout the country. I frequently highlight NYSUFC as a well-organized, passionate group of people who take the time to build strong partnerships and share knowledge, raising the tide of our collective urban forestry efforts.
I am grateful for the opportunity to serve on the Council, and I can’t wait for the next ReLeaf Conference!