Q&A: Tucson's Joan Lionetti Speaks for the Trees

This year is the 25th anniversary of Trees for Tucson, an initiative in the city to plant and maintain desert trees. Joan Lionetti, who moved to Arizona from Connecticut, started the program. She’s been an avid reader of Arizona Highways for much of her life. “It was Arizona Highways that influenced my move to Arizona,” she says. “I still send a subscription to my grandchildren.”

We had the pleasure of talking to Lionetti about her initiative, how it got started and why trees and landscapes matter. She moved to Arizona in large part because of the uniqueness of the desert landscape, she says — and that landscape is what she values and believes in preserving with Trees for Tucson. (Photo courtesy of Tucson Clean & Beautiful Inc.)

How did the initiative for Trees for Tucson and Tucson Clean and Beautiful start?
The initiative for the Trees for Tucson program started through my contact with American Forests’ Global ReLeaf project that was initiated out of Washington in 1989. I connected with American Forests, and we decided as an organization that Tucson needed an urban forestry program, that it would be very significant for us to take a lead role on starting urban forestry in Tucson. Especially the fact that it’s a desert environment and certainly needs trees, and we were looking at the fact that more and more information was coming out of the significance of climate change and global warming.

What inspired you personally to start the initiative?
I think what inspired me was the fact that so much of our growth patterns in metropolitan Tucson were targeted at eliminating our landscape. To me, our landscape is our dress code. It’s our environmental significance, and we need to be looking at it as a necessity versus just an amenity throughout our community. To me, the landscape was so unique in our desert, and we needed to be putting more of an emphasis on preserving and valuing this as a community asset.

Why would you say conservation and preservation of the landscape and environment is important for you, and how did that passion develop?
I think it’s important for everyone. We coordinate a youth program now with juveniles that are on probation, and suddenly their awareness of their landscape and their surroundings is becoming quite significant. When they’re doing training in how to prune a tree properly and they’re standing at a bus stop, they come back the next week for another class and they start telling us, "You know what? We saw that tree at the bus stop, and you know what? We could have trimmed that way the way it’s supposed to be trimmed."

I mean, you’re educating your children, you’re educating your developers, your politicians, in the significance of landscape. Landscape and roadway projects. With growth areas and roadway projects, you’re always seeing the insignificance that is placed on landscape in major road projects. So on one hand, we’re removing our landscape and we’re putting in more and more roads, and we’re not providing any kind of landscaping — preserving it or mitigation plans to preserve it — and therefore, the group that I was working with at the time got very excited and inspired, as I did, about focusing on trees for Tucson.

Who has influenced you along the way, and how?
Probably Dr. Greg McPherson, who is with research at Davis, California, with the U.S. Forest Service. He was a professor at the [University of Arizona], and he was the first chair that I recruited for Trees for Tucson in 1989. He provided a significant educational basis and research basis — as I keep reiterating to him, “You are the one that gave me my tree fervor and made this program very adaptable to our community and to every level of our citizens throughout the community.” I mean, schoolchildren of every age — little nursery schools could plant a tree and little children could take a little pail of dirt and dump it and participate in planting trees throughout Tucson.

What changes have you seen in Tucson over the years?
I’ve seen more of an awareness of responsible development. I see that all of these issues to influence policy, for instance on vegetation replacement, on mitigation, on looking at when infrastructure is being planned for road projects — the landscape architects should be brought in in tandem with the utilities, and they should be working together. Hopefully someday I will see that the planning is done simultaneously, not as accommodating our infrastructure of utilities, but being done compatible with all of the design, not just a secondary section to design and planning. I think it’s a slow process, and you have to have commitment and tenacity to hang in, to see change.

We finally have gotten the utilities to look at, instead of irresponsible pruning to trees that have been under power lines, that we’re now seeing a policy of removal and replacement, because these trees, in being pruned in the manner in which they are under power lines, are weakened and are more susceptible to disease and demise.

What would you say are some of the greatest challenges you’ve faced? The greatest victories?
I think probably one of the significant challenges is to see that there is responsible training for pruning. We see such desecration of our landscape in lack of training and pruning. We’ve had the Department of Corrections — for a while they were doing pruning with the Transportation Department. There was obviously no professional oversight by an arborist. We’ve seen so many of our street trees weakened and, again, susceptible to demise in a much more rapid fashion than their lifespan should be.

I find that one of my great feelings of achievement with partnerships with government was the El Paseo de los Arboles tree park along the Santa Cruz River, and that was a tree park that was designed and had no landscape. They had put in the bank protection for flood control and they had put in the infrastructure, but they had no money, typically, for landscape, and we were able to coordinate with Pima County and the city of Tucson government to initiate a commemorative tree park where people would be able to purchase trees and dedicate them on memorial walls. These trees were dedicated for special occasions, such as retirement or celebration to a new child in the family, or as a memorial for someone who had died. The park was so successful, it was projected to be a five-year project and it ended up being just under two and a half years that we fulfilled all of the landscape along a mile-long stretch along the Santa Cruz River, which would not have been landscaped.

Again, it was collaboration and working together. Also, another part was incorporating that this section of the park was part of the Anza Trail, which was in the 1700s, Juan Bautista de Anza was able to take settlers from Mexico and along this trail and ended up claiming San Francisco for the Spanish, so that became a part of the historic background of the park as well.

Why should others care about the landscape?
I think when you look at the benefits of the landscape, everyone benefits from it. Not only from an aesthetic standpoint, but from an air-quality, from a health standpoint, an air-quality standpoint. From stormwater control. From parking-lot enhancement. Where do you see most of the parking, if there are trees? When you go into any parking lot and there are trees, you rarely are able to find a parking space under a tree. So we have storm control, we have a significant impact on reducing CO2, which is one of the issues to do with urban heat islands and climate change, greenhouse gases. I think that any community will see that real-estate values are far more significant when we have landscape and vegetation. It’s our dress code. It’s our pride in our community. When you come in to visit, you get a feeling about a community initially without even being aware of it in all situations, that the landscape creates a feeling for you about a community.

If we came into Tucson and, as many people think that come to visit — they're not aware of the difference between a high desert, which the Sonoran Desert is, and the fact that we have such incredible and such varied vegetation and unique vegetation. It’s a treasure. It’s what makes the Sonoran Desert and Southern Arizona so unique — and all of Arizona.

— Molly Bilker

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