Arbor Day Highlight: The TreeKeepers

Have you ever walked through a city-owned park  and noticed that the trees were freshly groomed? Most likely, you just went by the work of the TreeKeepers.

“There are ecological battles going on,” states Clifton Logan, who has been a TreeKeeper, the city’s natural lands revitalization workforce development program, since 2015. “We see a lot of neglect in the natural world. What we do is about restoring beauty.” He grasps the chainsaw in his hand as he uses his other hand to point to a few neighbors walking down the newly cleared sidewalk “It also helps property value, it improves lighting in the area, too, which helps with crime rates.”

Trees, and healthy trees, help a multitude of issues in neighborhoods. Claiming it’s a “battle” is accurate, too. Not only grooming native trees, but removing invasive species are just one of the many battles that the TreeKeepers fight every day. Invasive plants, or species of plants who are not native to the Philadelphia area and are harmful to native plants, are rampant in our urban environment. There are over 285 invasive plant species in Philadelphia that reproduce quickly, spread far, and take over large portions of the landscape without natural controls to ensure that their populations stay stable. Work is done from many angles to combat these invasives.

Comprised of 6-10 people, the TreeKeepers all work together to achieve a more beautiful, healthy, ecological landscape in our city’s parks. The program started in 2012 after years of  deferred tree maintenance because grounds workers were focused on the need to pick up trash. The TreeKeepers are one of the most comprehensive teams of its kind, covering land recovery, tree plantings and maintenance. Every day, they clear 2 to 4 30-cubic yards of material.

The program is a workforce development success as well. When the program was expanded the crew set new vision and goal to employ “at-risk” workers, resulting in most crew members being returning citizens. “This is teaching these young people skills of many types: speaking professionally, communicating with communities, taking care in their work, taking pride in their work and seeing how it effects people” says crew leader and Community Initiative Specialist, Joe Caesar.  Some TreeKeepers take their career a step further and join the Career Apprenticeship Program, a 24 month program connects seasonal employees to permanent jobs concentrated on land restoration.

Trees are also a helpful tool in addressing sustainability and equity issues. An increased tree canopy can help cool areas of the city that are excessively hot. Some parts of Philadelphia are up to 20 degrees hotter than others, which is just getting worse with climate change. Adding trees can help protect residents from health issues that are made worse in excessive heat. Adding a tree by your house can also reduce your air conditioning costs in the summer and help filter and add to your air quality. Trees help soak up water to prevent flooding, too! With increased precipitation and heat that Philadelphia is expected to see with climate change, trees and vegetation are a vital key to adapting to our changing city.

Tree maintenance is a vital part of our urban forest. Thank you, TreeKeepers for your hard work in our neighborhoods and parks.

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Here are some of the TreeKeepers stories:

Joseph Caesar, “cowboy Joe”

TITLE: Community Initiative Specialist

Joe’s story: Joe got started in 1998 as a community organizer in a faith based initiative for green issues. To expand on these skills, in 2002 got a master’s degree in science for community economic development

He pointed to working in the Cobbs Creek area as a strong point in his career. There, he was holding a meeting with community members and creating a map of needs and priorities to see where it meshed with the ecological map of priorities to create safety, trails, and viewing areas for the community. With these efforts, he found that crime went down 87% when places were revitalized and that’s when it “clicked”.

“At first, we have forests. But they’re not just forests of trees, we have forests of neglect, we have forests of crime. And we shape that, we change that into forests of beauty. Forests of serenity. We work strategically to change these areas so that what was once neglect can become beautiful and usable for a long time, not just for a little while once we are done. That’s our job, we are the total tree group.”

Curtis Shiver

TITLE: TreeKeeper crew chief

CURTIS’ STORY: In 2009, Curtis started working as a prep cook for two years, and then worked in janitorial services for a few years. Afterwards, he did deferred maintenance work. When he started with TreeKeepers, he admitted that he didn’t know much about the work. Curtis has been doing TreeKeepers for 4-5 years and has been crew chief for about a year. He leads a crew of about eight people to help beautify communities through various landscaping and tree maintenance work.

One of his favorite things about the job is watching crew members grow and develop their skills as they go through TreeKeepers. He stresses that one of the most important things is speaking to communities and being able to address their concerns about the natural land around them. “They’re always really happy to see us around and to see our work,” he says.

“We hear the people in the communities and we’re here to help.”

Andrew Emma

TITLE: TreeKeepers Program Manager

ANDREW’S STORY: Andrew got his start with neighborhood tree plantings and with that, developed relationships  with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and a few other neighborhood groups. PHS had a seasonal position open and so he became part a seasonal tree maintenance associate. He then became a TreePhilly assistant and eventually in 2012 became full time exempt with the City.  “This work is something that people from any background tend to enjoy. There’s a connection to nature and there’s an understanding that we go out to make spaces better for communities. There’s a tangible sell”.

Lori Hayes

TITLE: Director of Urban Forestry – Philadelphia Parks and Recreation

LORI’S STORY: Lori has been working for the city for 36 years. She began as a ground maintenance worker, then a landscape project technician. then a district manager for 20 years.  Then in 2011 there was the merger between the Fairmount Parks Commission and the Recreation Department, during which she moved to FDR Park, followed by being the Cobbs Creek Watershed head and the north regional manager.

“I’m your person for ‘all to do with trees!”

Clifton Logan

TITLE:  TreeKeeper since ’15

CLIFTON’S STORY: Clifton saw a lot of neglect in the natural world  and joined PowerCorpsPHL to address it. PowerCorpsPHL allowed him to shadow and learn from others. Now with TreeKeepers he has the opportunity to show off the skills he gained.  He’s learned a lot from time with Tree Keepers, including plant species, and GSI concepts. Clifton is becoming a chainsaw expert and is able to use a variety of power tools at this position.

“It’s about restoring beauty, helps property value, improves lighting in the area, and eco-battles such as invasives.” He says it’s mostly about the opportunity, not the pay.

PDF of Greenworks on the Ground's section for community resources on how to preserve and maintain and build our natural resources in Philadelphia.