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Friday, April 12, 2024
HomeNewsLocal news$6.5 Million in STX Urban Forestry Grants Hailed as Investment 'Never Seen...

$6.5 Million in STX Urban Forestry Grants Hailed as Investment ‘Never Seen Before’

Celebrating the award of a record $6.5 million in federal urban forestry grants at a ceremony Wednesday at Government House on St. Croix are, from left, Andres Gonzalez and Maya Quinones of the International Institute of Tropical Forestry in Puerto Rico, V.I. Agriculture Commissioner Louis Petersen, Assistant Commissioner Diana Collingwood, Olasee Davis, representing the V.I. Trail Alliance, Beattra Wilson, assistant director of the Urban and Community Forestry Program of the U.S. Forest Service, Grizelle Gonzalez and Magaly Figueroa of the International Institute of Tropical Forestry, and Sarah Brady, executive director of the St. George Village Botanical Garden. (Government House photo)
Celebrating the award of a record $6.5 million in federal urban forestry grants at a ceremony Wednesday at Government House on St. Croix are, from left, Andres Gonzalez and Maya Quinones of the International Institute of Tropical Forestry in Puerto Rico, V.I. Agriculture Commissioner Louis Petersen, Assistant Commissioner Diana Collingwood, Olasee Davis, representing the V.I. Trail Alliance, Beattra Wilson, assistant director of the Urban and Community Forestry Program of the U.S. Forest Service, Grizelle Gonzalez, Magaly Figueroa and Jo Ann Santana of the International Institute of Tropical Forestry, and Sarah Brady, executive director of the St. George Village Botanical Garden. (Government House photo)

Jubilation filled the air at Government House on St. Croix as the V.I. Trail Alliance, St. George Village Botanical Garden and V.I. Agriculture Department celebrated the award of a record $6.5 million in federal urban forestry grants meant to improve the island’s climate resiliency and food security.

Beattra Wilson, assistant director of the Urban and Community Forestry Program of the U.S. Forest Service, said the grants — funded through President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act — are “an investment in urban forestry never seen before.”

She praised the grant applications of the St. Croix non-profits and the Agriculture Department, telling the Source in an interview after Wednesday’s press conference that their proposals “leaped from the pages,” compared to their more than 840 competitors from across the country, for their focus not just on climate but also food security.

Typically, when people think about urban forestry, they think about planting shade trees on city streets and medians, said Wilson. “But the way you all are using your trees here is to offset food insecurity. The preponderance of fruit and nut and spice trees [in the grant applications] was incredible, and I think it was an amazing example that leaped from the pages, that this isn’t just a shade tree. You are checking so many boxes around the benefits that not everybody is thinking of,” she said.

“We had $6.4 billion in asks for this grant program,” Wilson said of the initiative, which awarded $1 billion in total. “For the Virgin Islands to not just take the time to put in a proposal but put in a proposal that lifted off the pages,” and demonstrated the full benefits of urban forestry, was inspiring, she said. “This was a very specific ask, for the sustenance.”

Also striking was the focus on solutions, said Wilson, who has been with the U.S. Forest Service for 23 years and is based in Washington, D.C.

“They talked about educating youth and paid training for the workforce — opportunities for them to get trained while getting a stipend, while getting acclimated, but also building that camaraderie and ownership around the green spaces that are being planted. All of that is what makes this unique,” said Wilson.

Under the program, the V.I. Agriculture Department will receive $1.5 million, and the St. George Village Botanical Garden and Virgin Islands Trail Alliance $2.5 million each. The grants are for a period of five years.

Agriculture Commissioner Louis Petersen said the money will allow the department, which partners with the V.I. Trail Alliance, to plant a variety of trees to increase food production but also to train people to nurture and maintain the green spaces, creating job opportunities and economic benefits to the community.

“There is no doubt these projects will benefit the community in many ways and for a long time to come,” said Petersen who, along with others, had high praise for Assistant Commissioner Diana Collingwood, whom he thanked for her “relentless efforts” spearheading the grant initiative for the department.

Her passion for the environment evident, Collingwood discussed the importance of trees — for shade, food, a healthy environment, recreation, and for mental health — and the need to sustain the initiative the grant is funding.

“We need to start engaging our young people early, so they can develop the skills we need for success in the industry,” she said.

Sarah Brady, executive director of the St. George Village Botanical Garden, said that’s exactly what the grant will allow the garden to do, and thanked Collingwood for alerting them to the opportunity, and in helping with their application.

The money will allow the garden to hire a full-time arborist, grounds crew and education coordinator to facilitate projects geared to community education, workforce development in urban forestry, climate mitigation, forest conservation and food resilience, said Brady. The garden plans to partner with local schools on more forestry education, field trips, teacher leader training, and also will provide 800 trees for the public school system, she said.

Rain could not dampen the enthusiasm of members of the V.I. Trail Alliance, My Brother’s Workshop, the International Institute of Tropical Forestry in Puerto Rico, and the Urban and Community Forestry Program of the U.S. Forest Service as they plant a mastic bully tree at the Estate Adventure Pavilion trail on Wednesday on St. Croix to commemorate the award of $6.5 million in urban forestry grants for the big island under President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act. (Source photo by Sian Cobb)
Rain could not dampen the enthusiasm of members of the V.I. Trail Alliance, My Brother’s Workshop, the International Institute of Tropical Forestry in Puerto Rico, and the Urban and Community Forestry Program of the U.S. Forest Service as they plant a mastic bully tree at the Estate Adventure Pavilion and Trail on Wednesday on St. Croix to commemorate the award of $6.5 million in urban forestry grants for the big island under President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act. (Source photo by Sian Cobb)

With Funding Comes Opportunities

Tree planting ceremonies were held after Wednesday’s press conference to commemorate the grant awards. A soapberry (Sapindus Saponaria) and mastic bully (Mastichodendron foetidissimum), donated by the V.I. Rare Plant Initiative, now grace the entrance to the trail at the Estate Adventure Pavilion, and a tamarind tree (Tamarindus indica) was planted near the entrance to the St. George Village Botanical Garden.

Olasee Davis and Susan Austin Kraeger, board chair of the St. George Village Botanical Garden, prepare to plant a tamarind tree Wednesday in celebration of the award of $6.5 million in urban forestry grants for the big island under President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act. (Source photo by Sian Cobb)
Olasee Davis and Susan Austin Kraeger, board chair of the St. George Village Botanical Garden, prepare to plant a tamarind tree Wednesday in celebration of the award of $6.5 million in urban forestry grants for the big island under President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act. (Source photo by Sian Cobb)

For Susan Austin Kraeger, board chair of the garden, the grant award was yet another sign from the village’s enslaved ancestors, whose presence she said is felt in every project undertaken at the historic 16-acre site. Once a massive 18th-century Danish colonial sugar plantation, today it boasts more than 1,000 Caribbean and pan-tropical plants and trees and is home to a museum, herbarium, and seed bank.

The site was once also home to Amerindians, who traveled up the Lesser Antilles island chain from Venezuela and settled in the area from about 100 to 900 A.D. Which is all to say, federal reviews are required before any projects are undertaken, said Austin Kraeger. As luck would have it, the St. George Village Botanical Garden has been working with the Society of Black Archaeologists for several years, including Alexandra Jones, Ph.D., who will be a consultant on the project, she said.

“We are hoping to have a dynamic display of what we are finding as we go along,” said Austin Kraeger. “It’s pretty exciting. It’s just a marvelous, exciting matrix. The key is finding people who are as passionate as we are to engage.”

The ultimate goal is to plant 1,100 fruit, nut and spice trees, said Austin Kraeger. “We thought it would be fun to be able to talk about ethno-botany and some of the ways the culture uses things we grow in cooking,” she said.

For example, a pilot program for all public school fifth graders to visit the garden, funded by a separate grant through the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands, includes a lunch with macaroni and cheese that incorporates annatto, the food coloring derived from the seeds of the achiote tree that imparts a yellow or orange hue to the foods we eat.

The Urban Forestry grant will also enable the garden to hire paid student interns in the summertime, “which is going to be huge,” said Austin Kraeger. “I’m not sure there is any other botanical garden like this … with the combination of the historical and the botanical at the same time – it is pretty unique,” she said.

Olasee Davis at the Estate Adventure Pavilion and Trail on St. Croix, which was made possible thanks to the joint effort of AARP in the Virgin Islands, the V.I. Trail Alliance and community partners, including My Brother’s Workshop. (Source photo by Sian Cobb)
Olasee Davis at the Estate Adventure Pavilion and Trail on St. Croix, which was made possible thanks to the joint efforts of AARP in the Virgin Islands, which provided a grant, the V.I. Trail Alliance and community partners, including My Brother’s Workshop. (Source photo by Sian Cobb)

It Really Does Take a Village

Wednesday’s celebration featured the who’s who behind the effort to promote sustainability in the territory, from Petersen and Collingwood to members of the International Institute of Tropical Forestry in Puerto Rico, part of the USDA Forest Service, who all spoke at the Government House ceremony.

But to a person, all acknowledged the unstinting contributions of Olasee Davis, Ph.D. — who wrote letters in support of the grants, is on the board of the V.I. Trail Alliance, and a member of 20 other non-profit organizations locally, nationally and internationally — as central to the initiative.

At the press conference Davis, an assistant professor at the University of the Virgin Islands School of Agriculture on St. Croix and a passionate environmentalist and historian who shares his knowledge freely, including in the pages of this newspaper, took his turn at the podium to ask for a moment of silence to remember Larry Bough, who in 1974 became the director of the Division of Forestry and coordinator of the U.S. Forest Service and is hailed as the first native forester of the Virgin Islands.

Urban forestry has a “long, long, long history” on St. Croix, said Davis, noting the mahogany trees outside Government House that are more than 200 years old, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps program that began in 1933, employing single men ages 18 to 25 during the Great Depression to work on programs to improve America’s public lands, including on the big island.

The V.I. Trail Alliance will plant food trees along the island’s streambeds, as was done by the ancestors, said Davis, and will also have programs to educate children about their importance, “so they can appreciate what we have here in the Virgin Islands,” he said.

“This is the first time in history that we have received so much money,” said Davis. “Whenever you see President Biden, tell him the bushman said thanks,” he told Wilson.

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