“Profiles in Environmentalism” is a recurring segment on our blog where we shine a light on the dedicated people who are working to preserve the world around them. Big or small, local or national, every environmental organization works towards the same goal: providing a greener world for future generations.
When the desert sun shines on Tucson its residents enjoy the sight of clean streets, vibrant & healthy trees, and, on occasion, a band of volunteers clad in denim jeans and gardening gloves. These volunteers work for a local organization called Tucson Clean & Beautiful (TCB), a non-profit devoted to improving Tucson’s local environment and ensuring that all Tucsonans, both current and future, are able to enjoy it.
Since 1985, TCB has worked with local communities on a variety of programs that are designed to instill a sense of environmental stewardship. One of its biggest community programs is Trees for Tucson, where any community member or organization can purchase trees for their property. Many local schools and neighborhoods can receive discounts through the program to help shade public spaces. In many cases, TCB provides planting instructions to students and volunteers who participate in tree plantings. Any interested organization can also enlist the help of TCB in planning a community planting event, selecting the right locations, picking the right species of tree, and even matching the organization with a volunteer group to assist in the planting.
Complementing Trees for Tucson is the Adopt a Park program, where other local organizations can get directly involved in keeping their neighborhoods clean. Those organizations who adopt one of the many green spaces around the city routinely volunteer to clean up litter at their site and work to prevent more from coming in. The Adopt a Park program currently has 260 continually adopted sites around Tucson, with volunteer groups contributing a collective total of 265,000 volunteer hours.
TCB also establishes commemorative tree parks throughout the city, creating natural spaces where friends and families can purchase a tree to dedicate to their loved ones. These parks are created in linear stretches in areas where the city has already built, or is planning to build, linear parkways that feature enough open space to allow the planting of hundreds of trees. Those who purchase a tree have the opportunity to have the name of their loved one displayed along a commemorative wall that lies adjacent to each tree grove.
Trees Save Green
All of this work to encourage developing green spaces with plenty of shade has an impact beyond simply sprucing up local neighborhoods. Studies have shown that shade trees provide numerous financial and environmental benefits. A study conducted by the US Forest Service found that streets lined with large-crowning trees require 50% fewer repairs over a 30 year period compared to those streets with little or no shade. The trees keep the asphalt cool by blocking the sun’s rays which would otherwise cause the asphalt to expand and crack. And fewer cracks mean fewer channels for rainwater to seep in and cause further damage to the street.
In another study by the Forest Service, it was shown that mature trees can increase property values by 10-15% compared to those residences without any trees. These trees can also provide long-term savings when planted on the west facing side of a home, blocking the sun’s rays and reducing the need for air conditioning. They further showed that a group of trees that are properly placed around a building can reduce air conditioning needs by up to 30%, and reduce energy demand by between 20-50%.
Those neighborhoods that invest in trees also receive numerous health benefits in the form of cleaner air and water. Trees naturally absorb pollutants such as ammonia and sulfur dioxide, and trap heavy air particles on their bark and leaves. Of course, trees are also a great carbon sink, capturing CO2 and releasing oxygen during the course of photosynthesis.
Trees are also great for reducing soil erosion along streams and hillsides thanks to their extensive root systems. Their roots help keep soil in place, which in turn allows for more rainwater to be retained in the ground instead of running off into streams and rivers, carrying surface contaminants with it.
These Weeds Don’t Tumble
Clearly, adding green things to a city’s landscape is a good thing; but there are some plants that do more harm than good. In Tucson, the most notorious wild plant is the buffelgrass, a hardy, fire-adapted species from Africa. This particular species of grass grows very fast, and consumes large amounts of water and nutrients. Its rampant growth can quickly crowd out native plants, reducing entire fields to nothing but buffelgrass.
An especially virulent patch of buffelgrass will grow into a giant clump that prevents anything else from growing around it. During the summer months, these patches of buffelgrass go dormant, forming a bone-dry pile of flammable brush that poses a serious wildfire risk. And once a grass-fueled fire gets going it can burn as hot as 1600 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to destroy just about anything around it.
Fortunately, TCB and other organizations actively work to limit the population of buffelgrass around the city. Buffelgrass is very resilient and can be found growing on virtually any exposed ground. TCB’s volunteers regularly cleanup lots and alleys where buffelgrass has gained a foothold, tearing it up by its roots to ensure that the grass is completely removed.
TCB is not the only one taking buffelgrass seriously; Pima County has a standing ordinance mandating the removal of buffelgrass on unincorporated parts of the county. All residents are encouraged to contact the Department of Environmental Equality to report areas where they’ve seen the notorious plant growing.
Tucson Clean & Beautiful also plays a big role in the local recycling scene, helping to connect area residents with local recycling services that handle a broad range of materials. Eager recyclers can check out TCB’s recycling directory to find recyclers for electronics, clothing, plastic bags, packaging materials, plastic containers, hearing aids, medical equipment, books, appliances, and so many other items that it would be next to impossible not to find the one service you are looking for.
In addition to its directory, TCB helps imbue the city with recycling knowledge through a variety of outreach methods. One such method is the Master Recycler Training class, a 2-3 hour course that teaches participants about local opportunities to reduce waste and recycle more. The city’s youth can also learn more about recycling through the “E Pluribus Recycles” play, an interactive play that teaches elementary students about the importance of recycling and how they can help recycle too, whether it’s through curbside recycling or taking their recyclables to the landfill themselves.
Reaching Youth at Risk
Between cultivating a green urban environment and fighting invasive species, TCB also maintains an at-risk youth program called Youth Achieving Resource Development Skills (YARDS). The program is designed to teach desert landscaping skills to kids aged from 15-18 who are involved with the Pima County Juvenile Court System. Those students who participate in the program learn the tools of the trade, with classes covering everything from tree climbing to building irrigation systems.
Upon graduation, students receive a Certificate of Achievement, along with reference letters from course instructors and a set of tools and safety equipment. But the real achievement for these students is accomplishing something outside of their normal lives and gaining renewed self-esteem. The YARDS program is a second chance for many of its participants, steering them on a path towards becoming a productive member of society. And with over 60 graduates in just four years, YARDS has been able to make a real difference in the lives of Tucson’s youth.
Keeping Tucson Beautiful
The main mission of Tucson Clean & Beautiful is right there in its name; to ensure that all citizens enjoy a vibrant and clean environment. But their work doesn’t just change the environment for the better; it also changes its volunteers for the better, fostering in them an appreciation for nature that drives them to work together to protect it.