Climate Justice with Chicago’s Calumet Tree Conservation Corps

The U.S. Forest Service places the number of trees in and around Chicago at 157 million. These trees store 62 million tons of CO2, annually remove another 677,000 tons of carbon from the air, and are valued at over $50 billion. SCA crews are helping to maintain these extraordinary ecological assets.

In nearby Indiana, SCA’s Calumet Tree Conservation Corps will plant up to 1,000 trees this year along the industrialized Grand Calumet Watershed. “The trees we plant help regulate temperature, purify the air we breathe, intake water that could otherwise flood public areas, and last but not least, provide support for native wildlife,” notes Corps Leader Ryan Bennett.

From the field, the team uploads species, locations, sourcing nurseries, and other information to an online database. “It is important for the newly planted trees to be carefully monitored within their first two to three years of establishment,” Ryan notes. The database, he adds, is a huge efficiency-booster as without it “either we could not plant as many trees or risk a lower survival rate for the trees we do plant.”

Back in Chicago, from June to September, another SCA tree team boarded a truck each morning with a 500 gallon tank of water in tow.

“We’d start at seven o’clock,” explains crew member Tyler Brooks, 21. “If we didn’t get enough rain, we’d water all week, up to 500 trees a day. If we did get enough rainfall, we’d mulch and trim.” The team persevered through Chicago’s hottest summer on record. Daily temperatures soared to nearly five degrees higher than average, making tree care all the more vital. The city’s urban canopy reduces residential energy costs by $44 million a year.

With the arrival of fall, tree team members began planting hundreds of native green ash, boxelders, and American elms. Tyler, who is studying environmental science at Purdue University, says the experience has been invaluable. “Everything I’m doing with SCA is putting my classroom activities into perspective.”

Both crews engage local volunteers in planting projects and all agree that’s often the best part of the job. “In that moment,” states Ryan, “we realize how we were once strangers but now share an experience of coming together as community members to give back to the planet and literally make a growing, positive impact on the world.”

Participants say they’re delighted to spend so much time in nature. In the words of one corps member, “every day is an adventure that never gets old.”