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Forest ReLeaf is bringing back St. Louis’ tree canopy — and helping new neighborhoods

A young volunteer proudly carries his oak tree to its new home in Gwen Giles Park, along the future Hodiamont Greenway.
Forest ReLeaf of Missouri
A young volunteer proudly carries his oak tree to its new home in Gwen Giles Park, along the future Hodiamont Greenway.

Forest ReLeaf of Missouri has been increasing St. Louis’ tree canopy for nearly 30 years, growing trees from seed and then distributing them to underserved communities. From its eight-acre nursery in Creve Coeur Park, the local nonprofit has supplied free trees to neighborhoods that span the city and county.

The heart of that is its Project CommuniTree program. By applying for trees to plant in public spaces, organizations or individuals can access free trees for their neighborhood or their nonprofit.

But under Executive Director Meridith McAvoy Perkins, Forest ReLeaf has been expanding its focus.

“The idea that trees are just something pretty that we want in our backyard, or we want to see in a park, is important, and trees are beautiful,” Perkins explained on Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air. “But now we're looking at trees as part of a tool to [address] some of these really huge emerging global issues like climate change, biodiversity and a connection to people and nature. It's really important to think strategically about how we're investing in trees and where we are, and what those trees are then doing for quality of life, public health, and all of the things that we really value.”

Doing that successfully, Perkins said, meant making it easier for underserved communities to get trees — and care for them once they’re planted. Less affluent neighborhoods tend to have significantly less tree cover. For their residents, Perkins noted, “Price isn’t the only limitation.”

And so the organization has been upping its partnerships with groups working in those areas. Last fall, Forest ReLeaf became the first recipient of the Arbor Day Foundation’s Environmental Equity Grant. The two-year grant funds an intensive effort to bring new trees to the city’s Ville community via the advocacy organization 4theVille, with 50 trees slated for public grounds in the north St. Louis neighborhoods of the Ville, Greater Ville and Kingsway East. The organization will distribute another 150 for residents to plant.

Listen: How Forest ReLeaf is bringing trees to St. Louis

Dail Chambers, who lives in the Greater Ville, said the neighborhood has been hit hard by the emerald ash borer, a pest that feeds on ash trees. (Perkins said losing damaged ash trees alone decreases the city’s canopy by 17%.) Forest ReLeaf’s efforts help replace those trees — and shore up the canopy in a neighborhood where it’s been lacking.

“Not only are we just giving away these trees, we're working with neighborhood young folks so that we can help support the planting of the tree on private property,” Chambers said. “Some folks may not have the ability to plant the tree, or maybe even all the physical gumption. You know, it takes a lot of work to water a tree every day or stay on top of it.” Forest ReLeaf and the 4theVille community organization will help with that too.

Forest ReLeaf is currently working on two other projects north of Delmar — one, in St. Louis County, aims to address dead, dying and hazardous trees. Another will bring trees to the Gateway Greenway projects being constructed in north St. Louis.

Perkins noted that, last year, the organization hired a partnership manager to facilitate more projects like those.

“We didn't want to change the program that we were doing,” she said. “The CommuniTree program is really the bedrock of our organization. But we wanted to have more of an influence in removing these barriers and helping people understand why they want to plant trees and help them do that in the most successful way.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.