Jolie Wanger has a vision for Hawaii that would make it cooler, less polluted and healthier — all from planting more trees.
Wanger is working toward that goal as coordinator for the federally funded Kaulunani Urban and Community Forestry Program, which among other things offers grants to “non-federal organizations operating within Hawaii” so they can plant trees on their properties. Its website notes that since its inception in 1991, it has awarded “more than $2.6 million to 376 organizations across the state, in the form of cost-share grants that were matched with $7 million in cash and in-kind contributions.”
Recipients have included the Honolulu Zoo Society, Windward Community College, North Hawaii Community Hospital, Kahilu Theatre Foundation and many private and public schools as well.
The program’s latest focus is planting trees at schools through its “Cool the Schools” initiative, which it started in response to the recent clamor about Oahu’s hot public school classrooms. So far the initiative has involved just one school, Makiki Christian Church Preschool, which received $10,000 for the planting of five kou trees and related work (see photo), but Wanger hopes to serve many more under the initiative — even though serving schools already was part of Kaulunani’s broader efforts.
Originally from Colorado, Wanger has lived in Hawaii since 1998 when she moved here to earn a master’s degree in geography from the University of Hawaii. She also has a bachelor’s in biology from Boston University, which she attended after graduating from Cherry Creek High School, in Greenwood Village, Colo.
Turning 45 later this month, Wanger is married, has two young children and lives in Hawaii Kai.
Question: Where did the idea come from that trees are a good idea to plant all around the place?
Answer: (Laughs) I don’t know exactly. … But I think our communities would be fairly unlivable if we didn’t have trees, especially the more infrastructure that we put in place — you know, like roads and buildings. They tend to have a negative impact on livability of the area; they increase the temperature. … I would say that maybe somehow we have always understood that we need plants and trees in order to thrive. I can’t think of any cities that don’t have trees.
Q: Who came up with this program, “Cool the Schools”?
A: Well, we did. We had been hearing in the media for a couple of years about how the schools were so hot. And because we’ve done research here in Hawaii and across the country about all the benefits of trees, in terms of both environmental services and social economic benefits, it’s a natural partnership that we felt like we could offer to schools.
Research has shown that trees can cool a building by up to 10 degrees, if they’re planted in the right place. In addition there’s actually been research showing that it helps with things like behaviors, people’s overall well-being, test scores even …
Q: How many schools have you helped already?
A: Well, for this particular program it’s pretty new, and we’ve approved only one grant under this program that started last fall. That was for the Makiki Christian Preschool. But we’re hoping that we can fund a lot more.
Q: How are you trying to reach out to them?
A: Well, we have sent word out through certain networks of principals, but I’m hoping that we can get more contact with the right network of school administrators, either independent schools or public. We’re hoping that it will catch on here very soon.
Especially now that funding has been delayed for air conditioning, maybe they’ll consider trees, not as an alternative necessarily, but, there’s other reasons to choose trees as well, because of all the added benefits. And kids love trees. We hope that the schools that do plant trees will also incorporate education about trees and their benefits into their curriculum, and maybe that’s another way that we can work with this program to assist schools.
And even if air conditioning is installed, the trees will be an asset to the schools, by keeping the schools cooler and helping reduce the cost of electricity to run the air conditioners.
Q: How do schools know what type of trees to install?
A: With our grant program they can apply to purchase the trees but also to hire an arborist or someone, a landscape architect or somebody who can actually assist them in making sure that they plant the right trees and put them in the right location to get the greatest benefits. We will also work with them on some of that.
We did a study a few years ago, called the Urban Tree Canopy Assessment, and this showed what the canopy was like across the city in Honolulu. The trend across the country is to increase the tree canopy, and a lot of the cities across the eastern area of the United States have a canopy cover of like 40 or 50 percent. In Hawaii ours is like 20 percent, and we’re actually losing canopy.
Q: Why is that?
A: A variety of reasons. Some of it is construction, conversion of areas, forested areas, into development, but also from conflicts with solar farms, and people tend to not really appreciate their trees as well.
Q: Are you bothered when you see a home torn down in an old neighborhood, taking down old mango or citrus trees with it, and it’s replaced by a duplex or quadplex that is surrounded totally by cement out to the property line?
A: Yeah, it’s very disturbing. It’s a trend that’s happening everywhere — maximizing the property with either buildings or, like you said, cementing over because they think that’s low maintenance.
But that’s causing a lot of problems for our nearshore environments because there’s a big connection between the impervious surfaces and offshore water quality. The more that roads, parking lots and buildings cover the land, the worse the water quality is offshore, because it causes more runoff, and the runoff carries with it lots of terrible pollutants, especially from, like, cars, and sediments and things. It’s very disturbing.
So the best way to deal with it is to increase the permeability of the soil in a decentralized way. And trees, they help a lot with that. They do a great job with their roots, of creating permeability in the soil and taking up some of that excess water through their root and facilitating evapotranspiration.
Q: What about the drawbacks of trees? One of our readers online was saying trees also can damage your foundations, water pipes, sewer lines, roofs — and then, of course, there’s all the flower and leaves, falling branches; what do you think about all that?
A: Well, I’m going to emphasize again that we really try to promote for people to plant the right tree in the right place. And the best way, if you don’t have knowledge about different trees and the impacts they might have, is to consult with an certified arborist, because they’ll know if a particular tree species has invasive roots, because there’s a lot of trees out there that you can choose that aren’t going to cause any damage. You also want to make sure that you do a survey of your property and that you know where the issues, the conflicts might be, so you don’t want to put a tree right next to where you have buried utilities. That’s what we encourage as part of urban forestry practice.
Q: Once you plant these trees, are they expensive to maintain?
A: It depends on how large the tree is, and what tree species you plant. And that’s partly why we encourage schools to consult with an arborist in their planning process. We fund that as part of the grant because, again, they’ll be able to help the schools pick a tree that will have the right level of maintenance.
Q: Trees also attract potentially bothersome insects — ants and bees and wasps and things like that, and maybe even rodents and birds. Is that a drawback? I’m going back to those people who just don’t like trees in their yards. They hate all that stuff.
A: Yeah, but you know what? We’re a part of nature. We can’t remove ourselves completely from nature; then we go back to paving everything with concrete, too, you know? And kids love bugs; they love things that come from nature. I think we can’t necessarily protect kids from every possible hazard that’s out there, and I think the ones that are associated with trees are pretty minimal. Again, you just need to pick the right tree, one that doesn’t have anything poisonous, or anything that’s going to be hazardous.
A lot of schools won’t plant trees with a lot of flowers because they’re worried about bees. That’s completely up to the schools to think that thing through, in consultation with a professional.
Q: Shouldn’t people be planting more fruit trees around? I mean, if you’re going to plant a tree, why don’t you plant something that produces food as a side benefit?
A: Yeah, I’m also for planting fruit trees, or food trees, and having food forests in our urban areas, though I think private homeowners are able to do that more readily than public places. It would be nice to have these places where people could forage; I don’t know that we’re quite there yet.
Q: Can homeowners apply for grants?
A: No, it cannot be private homeowners.
Q: You’re actually an independent consultant working under contract, right?
A: Right. The state, the Division of Forestry and Wildlife, has been operating this federal program that way since the beginning. The grant is given by the U.S. Forest Service to the state, and then they have chosen to contract the program out. So we applied to manage the program and we’ve been doing it that way.
Q: How many people are in your company?
A: It’s actually a nonprofit organization called Smart Trees Pacific. We have a team of three who work on the Kaulunani program itself, and another person that does other program forestry projects, and then the small board of directors. It’s a very small organization.
Q: So before the “Cool the Schools” initiative, you were encouraging people to plant trees all along, right?
A: Yeah, we’ve been giving out money for tree-planting projects for a long time. We have a lot of different projects. We funded a project a couple years ago at the Honolulu Zoo; they did a children’s discovery forest. And we’ve funded a lot of projects at schools over the years.
Q: So how many trees do you figure have been planted because of your program? Hundreds? Thousands?
A: Oh, I’m sure it’s thousands. And by the way, I did want to give a shout-out for Teresa Trueman-Madiaga. She’s the actual program manager, until July 17, but I’m already acting in the role because we’re transitioning. She’s retiring next month, and she’s been with the program since the beginning. She’s the one who started it, in 1991. She has been instrumental in starting a lot of really amazing programs.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with the weed risk-assessment program, but that was something that was started by Teresa. It helps to screen any plants that are not from Hawaii, to find out what their potential invasiveness is. It’s a scoring system; she didn’t develop the scoring system but she got the process rolling on that.
She’s also done a lot of emergency management work, looking into how urban foresters can be involved with emergency management when there’s a storm that involves trees, and making sure that there are systems in place. …
Q: Like those trees on the Big Island that are brittle and collapse during wind storms?
A: The albizia?
Q: Yeah. And similarly, there is stretch of road leading into Sonoma, Calif., that had all these beautiful old eucalyptus trees alongside it, but as the years went by, the trees got larger and larger, and eventually there was a storm and a woman was killed in her car when a tree fell down, so they went through there and cut them all down.
A: Yeah, there are very highly trained arborists in our community who go out there and do risk assessment of trees like that. Because there’s lawsuits involved. The people who do this have to be very highly trained, and it’s a very important job.
Q: So, what’s your vision for the future in Hawaii; what would you like to see?
A: Wow. Well, I would like to see people have a greater appreciation for trees in the urban areas.
And I’d like to see a more robust urban forest, a healthy urban forest.
And I’d like to see citizens engaged with … We just started a program called Citizen Forestry; we’re training volunteers in Kailua to go and inventory the trees. I’d love to see that expanded where people are really learning about the trees in their communities and helping us to inventory them and helping to share with their neighbors about that.
And I’d love to see more projects that incorporate trees and green infrastructure for improving water quality in the ocean.