New York Tree Trust Development Director James Kaechele joined the Council Board last summer. The Council is lucky to have the contributions of this powerhouse who has achieved so much at 33! Here’s James in his own words.
From Scouts to Manhattan Forester
Growing up in suburban Connecticut, I spent my childhood camping and scouting, eventually becoming an Eagle Scout. My family had a trailer in the White Mountains of New Hampshire on a lake; the best time of my childhood was being totally free to explore the forest.
When it was time to go to college in the early 2000s, I thought about going into plant biotech, but ultimately decided I didn’t want to work in a lab all day. I was always most interested in connecting people to the natural world. I majored in environmental and forest biology at SUNY ESF and while I was still a student, I worked at Bartlett Arboretum in Stamford, Connecticut as an educator and then interim education director.
When I graduated I continued working at the arboretum as the education director. I was in charge of both child and adult education, so I was doing things like teaching busloads of first graders about the parts of a flower and putting “bee goggles” on them so they could see what a bee sees. I organized classes on all sorts of interesting topics for adults in the evenings and did some of the teaching myself. It was an exciting and fun job.
While in that position, I started going to Connecticut Urban Forestry Council meetings and discovered the career possibilities within urban forestry. In fall of 2007, MillionTreesNYC launched and the City was hiring new foresters to support the initiative. I was hired as a forester with NYC Parks and oversaw planting trees in East Harlem in one of the Trees for Public Health neighborhoods. It was super exciting to be part of this major new initiative.
For four years I was in charge of procurement contracts for trees—selecting the species and tagging the trees in the nurseries, and generally making sure the right plants were ready for us at the right time to plant in the parks and along the streets. Every one of those 15K to 20K trees/year that were planted as part of MillionTreesNYC was carefully, individually selected.
Working with contractors was stressful; it was the first time I was really managing so many different stakeholders and each with very different priorities. The contractor’s concern ends at the end of two years, when their warranty ends. Our job was to motivate them to ensure the trees didn’t just survive, but that they would thrive for a couple of forester lifetimes into the future.
Concurrently with tree procurement and contract oversight, I issued tree planting permits for construction projects in Queens. I also managed a couple of million dollars in contracts for the Brooklyn borough president to install tree guards around beds where residents had organized to get them for free. This was 2012-2013. We would supervise the guard installments and this was where my childhood exposure to welding (my father is a mechanic by trade) was useful!
Tree Guards, Great Trees, Greenpoint & More
In 2013, I stepped into my current job as development manager for the New York Tree Trust. Our signature program that we’re well known for is our donation program for tree guards. Folks can make a tax-deductible donation and we’ll come and install a guard around the tree bed in front of their apartment, townhouse, etc. We know that cities have limited budgets, and that NYC is a place where people take pride in where they live. Often, the one tree that’s in front of a New Yorker’s apartment is the only tree they see from their home. They want to protect that tree and some folks want to have a place to garden, so we empower people to be able to do that with the tree guard program.
The Tree Trust also cares for NYC’s Great Trees, those that are notable for size, species, form, or historical association (for example, a 300-year-old white oak/Quercus alba on Shore Road in Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx). The Tree Trust has been involved in the cloning of some of the Great Trees in order to ensure they live on in progeny. For instance, cuttings from a massive horsechestnut (Aesculus sp.) in Tappen Park on Staten Island are now 5 feet tall and we’re planning on replanting those clones this spring. We’ll be able to tie it in with a Neighborhood 360° revitalization program and plant these along Shore Road, which is the downtown entrance to Staten Island. It’s a great opportunity to signal renewal and a fresh start while preserving the genetic richness of one of our Great Trees.
The Tree Trust has some large grant programs we administer. Two years ago we planted 1600 trees in the Bronx in neighborhoods that are environmental justice areas under a grant from NYSERDA intended to mitigate the urban heat island effect. In addition, we are in the last leg of a project in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn that’s been implemented over several years, made possible with funds from an oil spill that were designated for community greening efforts.
The residents of Greenpoint voted tree planting and stewardship as one of their top priorities. Working with Trees New York and their signature Citizen Pruner program, residents are learning how to advocate and care for their parks and greenspace. We have three full-time people working in the neighborhood; one is a gardener, one is a forester, and one is doing the work of engaging the community on work days, connecting them to the resources they need. It’s been very cool advocating for these public-private partnerships on a hyperlocal scale. I’ve spent the past nine years living in Greenpoint, so I’m also personally invested in the project.
On the Evolution of the Field of Urban Forestry
I’m really excited about how other professionals that work in the urban realm are recognizing that trees and green spaces can help them tackle their challenges. Since its inception as a profession, urban forestry has always attracted people from a diverse set of professional backgrounds; now we’re finally seeing those diverse backgrounds coming to us for resources. There’s a recognition that trees are not just about beauty but have benefits for public health, stormwater management, air quality, and other ecosystem benefits.
I see this in municipalities of different sizes all over the State, where professionals come to the tree person to ask them for help with something. When ReLeaf was held at SUNY ESF a few summers ago, former Board member Chris Mercurio from Rome presented on a project there that was essentially a change in land use challenge. They had this brownfield land they wanted to make into a park and it wasn’t going to be successful unless the tree guy got involved to make sure that trees could grow. I remember thinking that Chris and I couldn’t be working in any more different locations, but that we were going through the same process, just at different scales.
What Makes James an Exceptional Public Speaker
In 2013 I participated in a leadership program through NYC Parks; everyone was petrified at presenting but I was really comfortable and someone asked me why. “Because I’ve been a drag queen since I was 20,” I said. Stunned silence. In college I bartended to make ends meet, and I started performing drag, learning as I went. It was totally exhilarating to transform into another character. I had to learn to be an excellent storyteller and find out how to engage even the initially disinterested or hostile audience members. It required both planning and improvisation and was actually excellent training for learning how to engage homeowners in conversations: how do I find a way to get them hooked on trees? So many of the skills I’ve used performing drag have proved useful in my work. I still do it here and there.
I also still love to teach when I can; I do internal trainings for Parks, like recently I held a winter tree ID refresher for some of the Tree Census staff. I’m one of the go-to people for info about specific trees—if they don’t want to look it up in Dirr, they can look it up in James.
Rambles and Okra in Astoria
I live in Astoria with my partner, A.J., who’s an architect. He’s interested in trees and I’m interested in architecture, so we take long rambling walks around the city and look at everything except the street signs. Work takes me fascinating places, like yesterday I was in City Island, a part of the Bronx by Orchard Beach that’s an old fishing village with beautiful homes that happens to be part of NYC. I had fun taking pictures and texting them to my partner.
Every summer for the past eight years we’ve spent time on Fire Island. It’s a unique coastal dune community of plants, and the people are just as unique! We travel globally as well, and every trip has to include a botanical garden or arboretum visit, no matter what city we are in.
We don’t have any of our own greenspace, but what saved us was when a friend bought a house in Astoria walking distance from us and turned us loose on the landscape. We’ve taken the backyard from 100% concrete to a lush green oasis that includes food crops like okra, beans, tomatoes, and eggplants. He’s thrilled and we’re thrilled to have a place to garden.
I never expected I’d be living in NYC and it was not even a glimmer of an idea until I was at least 22, but I totally took to it! The City is home to fantastic communities of all kinds … anyone can find a home somewhere.