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WVU Extension & West Liberty University receive grant to train low-income residents for tree careers

Two people sitting on a bench in a tree covered park
The USDA Forest Service awarded West Virginia University and West Liberty University a grant to support urban forest planning, management and job training in Wheeling, West Virginia. (United States Forest Service Photo)

It is no secret that West Virginia is a forested state and from funding allocated in the Inflation Reduction Act, the USDA Forest Service is making historic investments in boosting the nation’s tree cover in urban, suburban and rural communities nationwide. To properly maintain and care for our diverse landscape, the state needs highly skilled people who are prepared for urban and community forestry careers to improve and maintain the health of trees and green spaces.  

A partnership between West Virginia University Extension and West Liberty University, in cooperation with several local organizations, has been awarded a $1.5 million grant to support urban forest planning, management and job training in Wheeling, West Virginia. This grant comes from the USDA Forest Service’s Urban and Community Forestry Program.  

The Forest Service received 842 applications. Of those, only 17 awards went to colleges and universities. This was the only grant approved for West Virginia outside of the West Virginia Division of Forestry’s allotment. 

“There is a high need for climbing arborists, and there is not much training outside of a four-year degree for this profession,” Karen Cox, WVU Extension Agriculture and Natural Resources agent in Ohio County and principal investigator on the grant, said. “This program will create jobs and skilled workers to maintain utility lines, restore power after storms and right-of-ways and improve the care of trees.” 

The program will include classroom training and fieldwork. Program participants will receive training and acquire experience working in the field. As an International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist herself, Cox will be responsible for coordinating and administering the grant program. After completing the program, participants will understand the basics of watershed management and stream health, the different aspects of the health and care of trees, such as the decay of trees, how to safely remove trees, how to plant trees, how to keep trees alive and the holistic environmental effect trees have.  

“Managing and protecting urban forests is important for keeping our cities cool in the summer and managing flood risks,” said James Wood, West Liberty University professor of ecology. “Trees help water soak into the ground instead of running directly into the creeks causing flooding. They can also improve property values and encourage outdoor recreation, simply walking in greenspaces with trees has been shown to help lower stress and anxiety.” 

The Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool, a geospatial mapping tool that identifies areas across the nation where communities are faced with significant burdens, was used to designate where this program would take place. 

“WVU Extension is focused on education and outreach and that is what this program will offer to West Virginia residents,” Cox said. “In the future, I am hoping that we can develop satellite training opportunities around the state.” 

Cox will work with WVU Extension’s Safety and Health faculty to create the OSHA component for the training program. Having WVU Extension offer this program will attract people to participate and find meaningful employment, Cox explained.  

“This Forest Service grant is important for our state given its landscape because we have a lot of trees and power lines that run through forested areas that need maintenance,” Cox said. “This grant program will help to meet this need and improve our emergency response. I am hopeful to get more arborists in the area to improve the trees’ ecological impacts and to introduce people to this field.” 

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WVU Extension