Study Defines Economic Benefits of Tree Care and Urban Forestry

We’ve known all along that urban forests are a vital component of our economy and environment, making significant financial contributions to local, state and national economies, as well as providing critical ecosystem services. Until recently, urban forestry economic numbers have typically been aggregated into the broader green industry. In a recent ground-breaking study led by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and funded through a USDA Landscape Scale Restoration grant, a comprehensive analysis of the economic contributions of urban and community forestry was completed across the Northeast-Midwest region, which includes 20 states and Washington, D.C. (Figure 1) This analysis includes economic-impact numbers, employment numbers, industry outlook and a resource valuation.

Figure 1. The 21 states involved in the survey. Unless otherwise noted, graphics courtesy of Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

The final products include regional- and state-level reports, as well as a methodology report. The regional report includes all 20 states of the Northeast-Midwest region, along with Washington, D.C. There are 16 individual state-level reports, one for each state that signed on as a partner in the study. There is also a methodology report that will help with future replication of the study, allowing for the tracking of urban forestry economic-contribution trends over time. Factsheets are available for the regional and state reports. These reports and factsheets can all be found on the Northeast-Midwest State Foresters Alliance (NMSFA) website,

For the purposes of this study, urban forestry is defined as the establishment, conservation, protection and maintenance of trees in cities, suburbs and other developed areas. The scope of the urban forestry industry includes private businesses, utility companies, local and state governments, higher-education institutions and non-profit organizations associated with urban forestry in the region. Within the private sector, six industries were identified as being involved in urban forestry. (Figure 2)

Figure 2. Scope of urban forestry in Northeast-Midwest states.

In order to separate urban forestry from the broader green industries among private businesses and capture the involvement of other groups’ urban forestry activities, an electronic survey was developed and distributed to individual contacts associated with any of the above-mentioned groups. Using this survey data, a complete profile of employment statistics associated with urban forestry businesses and activities was developed for each group. The profile statistics were then input into IMPLAN software, an input-output regional economic modeling system, to estimate economy-wide ripple effects in the state economies stemming from direct economic activities in urban forestry-related industries. A full description of the methods can be found in the methodology report hosted on the NMSFA website.

“What are the numbers?” you ask. Drum roll, please…

Results from the input-output modeling suggest that in 2018, urban forestry activities in the study region directly contributed $17.6 billion in industry output and $13.5 billion in value added by supporting 258,550 full- and part-time jobs in various businesses and activities. Including direct, indirect and induced effects, urban forestry had a total contribution of $34.7 billion in industry output to the regional economy, employing more than 357,200 people with a payroll of about $16.05 billion. (Figure 3) Every dollar generated in urban forestry by the private sector contributed an additional $1 to the 21-state regional economy.

Figure 3. Economic contribution of urban forestry in Northeast-Midwest States, 2018.

Urban forestry in the 20 states and D.C. also had substantial contributions to local, state and federal taxes. In 2018, urban forestry businesses and employees in the study region paid more than $988.68 million in state and local taxes and about $2.1 billion in federal taxes. Employee compensation and households were the major categories, contributing about 90% of federal taxes collected directly from urban forestry businesses and employees. Most of the state and local taxes were collected on the production and import of goods, followed by household taxes.

The private sector represents about 92% of direct jobs (more than 237,000) and industry output (more than $16 billion) in the study region, with landscaping and tree care providers employing the largest percentage of workers in urban forestry (more than 200,000 jobs). Public agencies (municipal, county and state agencies) collectively contributed about $1.2 billion in total industry output by supporting approximately 13,800 jobs to the regional economy. Higher-education institutions and non-profit organizations had total job contributions of 1,430 and 2,270, respectively. The overall SAM (social accounting matrix) multiplier associated with employment was estimated to be 1.38, indicating that every job in urban forestry in these states resulted in another 0.38 jobs in other sectors of the economy.

Survey results provide a more in-depth look at sales and employment numbers for the private sector. Farm- and garden-equipment wholesaler businesses reported the highest average annual sales in total ($2.5-$5 million) and in urban forestry-related sales ($439,500-$879,000). Nursery and garden-supply stores followed closely behind with annual average total sales of $1-$2.5 million, urban forestry-related averaging $235,900-$589,750. (Figure 4)

Figure 4. Average annual sales of surveyed businesses by business type. Graphic by Richard May, TCIA, with data from WDNR.

Private landscaping and tree care providers employ the largest percentage of workers in urban forestry (43%), whereas nursery and florist-supplies merchant wholesalers reported the lowest average employment numbers (10.83). Approximately a quarter of nursery and florist merchant wholesalers (28.44%) and nursery and tree-production employees (23.33%) perform work in urban forestry-related activities. Less than 20% of employees in the following business types perform work in urban forestry: nursery and garden-supply stores (18.97%); farm- and garden-equipment wholesalers (16%); and landscape architectural services (19.56%). (Figure 5)

Figure 4. Average employment in private businesses. Graphic by Richard May, TCIA, with data from WDNR.

The future outlook of urban forestry in the study region was rated between “neutral” and “somewhat good” by all sectors (private, government, non-profit organizations, higher-education institutions and investor-owned utilities). Only the nursery and florist-supplies merchant wholesalers in the private sector reported an outlook that fell slightly under neutral.

In terms of issues influencing outlook, respondents from landscape or tree care services, nursery, greenhouse and tree production, nursery and garden-supplies stores and the investor-owned utilities rated difficulty in recruiting workforce as between “some” and “quite a bit” of an issue impacting urban forestry activities. Further, nursery, greenhouse and tree production and nursery and garden-supply stores rated inadequate supply chains as at least “some” of an issue. The majority of private business types rated public perception and value of trees as between “a little” and “some” of an issue. State agencies provided the highest rating for public perception and value of trees, between “some” and “quite a bit” of an issue. (Figure 6)

Figure 6. Average severity of issues impacting urban forestry activities by business type
(1- not at all, 2- a little, 3- some, 4- quite a bit, and 5- a great deal).

More than 88 million people (from a total of 127 million) live in urban areas of the Northeast-Midwest region, meaning these urban forests provide nearby nature for 69% of the region’s population. i-Tree Landscape was used to tabulate ecosystem services and canopy-cover percentages. It estimated that trees cover 28% of these communities, saving them $3.06 billion a year across three broad categories of ecosystem services: $1.36 billion from the removal of air pollutants, $635 million from the reduction of stormwater and $1.06 billion from the sequestration of carbon. This is a conservative estimate, because it only incorporates those three categories.

The comprehensive nature of this study leads to a complete picture of urban forestry contributions, including efforts of private businesses, public agencies and non-profit organizations. It communicates the industry’s monetary benefits in terms of dollar values and jobs to lawmakers. These findings have important management and policy implications. They provide justification for enhancement of current programs, as well as for the creation of new measures to support urban forest management.

Olivia Witthun, Laura Buntrock and Ram Dahal all work with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in Plymouth, Wisconsin. For more information on this study, visit

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