The quarterly donor newsletter of The Morton Arboretum

Content Detail

A New Leader for a Pioneering Urban Forestry Program

The future of the Chicago region’s tree canopy has a new steward. In April, Zach Wirtz became director of the Chicago Region Trees Initiative (CRTI), The Morton Arboretum’s urban forestry program, just as it began its 10th year.

The program was begun in 2014 to tackle large, complicated, long-range regional problems that had been exposed by the first census of trees in the seven-county Chicago region. The 2010 survey had revealed that the city and its suburbs had much less tree cover than the national average. The trees that did exist were not equitably distributed, with far more trees growing in wealthy and white neighborhoods and suburbs. The tree species were not diverse, with invasive European buckthorn accounting for almost a third of the tree canopy. There were too few oaks and far too many maples.

CRTI has operated from the start on a partnership model, bringing together environmental nonprofits, government entities, tree care professionals, volunteers, natural areas managers, and community members.

For Wirtz, leading CRTI is a natural outgrowth of his longtime interest in “how people make decisions about trees.”

After growing up near Rockford, he studied forestry at the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point and earned a master’s degree studying urban forest governance at the University of British Columbia. His research focused his thinking on the human element: Who makes decisions about trees where people live? What is the right balance between the importance of trees, the value of green space, and the needs of residents?

Moving from the Pacific rainforest to northern Texas, he then worked with cities, nonprofits, and corporations for the Texas Trees Foundation. “I was overseeing all their planting operations and their tree farm,” he said. “It was my first time actually growing trees, and going out and planting trees in neighborhoods.”

Wirtz also worked on policy, helping to develop the first Urban Forest Master Plan for the City of Dallas, which addressed many of the same issues that had led to the founding of CRTI.

Returning to his Midwestern roots, he came to work for CRTI in 2021 as community coordinator. He soon was promoted to community manager, working with state and local governments and major land managers on outreach, education, training, funding, and policy.

He and his wife Anne moved to West Chicago near woods where they enjoy walking with their 18-month-old son and two dogs.

Wirtz worked on a variety of CRTI’s wide-ranging projects. He played a major role in developing the Chicago Region Carbon Program, through which businesses can earn carbon credits for investing in trees. He also worked on a tool to help local governments craft ordinances to protect trees and on an advocacy hub to channel citizens’ concern about trees into effective engagement.

One of his favorite projects was a crumbling old asphalt parking lot at a riverside boat launch in the south suburbs. CRTI worked with partners including the village of Alsip and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago to turn it into a park filled with 200 trees and shrubs, and 2 acres of prairie plants.

Wirtz’s most ambitious job was overseeing the administration of $17.5 million of the Arboretum’s $23 million in Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) grant funding to help disadvantaged communities all across Illinois access millions of dollars in federal grants for urban forestry. The recipients of those grants were announced in June, and another round of funding applications is now open.

Many local communities that have applied for grants have insufficient staff and expertise in forestry, and they turn to CRTI for guidance “to make their projects great,” Wirtz said. The outreach and support needed to turn dollars into a better tree canopy is placing great demands on the program. “When I came to CRTI in 2021, it had five staff positions,” he said. “It’s now up to almost 20.”

Opportunities for CRTI to support urban forestry in the region and around the state are growing exponentially. At the same time, there is a long way to go to reach CRTI’s goal of a healthier, more diverse, more equitable urban forest. The Arboretum’s 2020 Chicago Region Tree Census found that although the region had more trees than in 2010, the invasive buckthorn problem is actually worse. “We know we could do more if we had a deeper operating budget,” he said.

Wirtz has taken over a program that had become nationally known under its founding director, Lydia Scott, for its broad, regional view of the urban forest; its rigorous, data-based approach; its work to make that data accessible and useful through maps and other tools; and its strong partner focus.

“We know we can’t do all the work, nor should we,” he said. He is hoping CRTI can become a model for regional forestry partnerships across the country.

“Zach has built a strong, inclusive, productive team that is effectively collaborating with hundreds of local community partners in the Chicago region and statewide,” said Murphy Westwood, PhD, the Arboretum’s vice president of science and conservation.

“The success of CRTI is really a regional success, because of all the partnerships we have been able to develop over the last 10 years,” Wirtz said. “It’s through those partnerships that the Arboretum has been able to positively impact urban forestry over the Chicago region.”