You’ll find them all over the greater Houston area: loblolly pines that tower over the urban landscape, sprawling live oaks that give much-needed shade in the summer heat, and Texas redbuds that provide an early spring treat with their lovely purple blooms.
Little wonder that the National Arbor Day Foundation has designated Houston a “tree city” for years.
“Jim had a very persuasive way of demonstrating what a difference trees could make. He had an aerial photograph that showed just how barren downtown was, and then he had pictures of other cities with trees and similar urban situations. It didn’t take a lot of imagination to see how dramatically Houston could be improved.”
But it wasn’t always this way. Decades ago, while a few pockets of the city were replete with greenery, other areas were glaringly barren.
“Downtown Houston in the early 1980s was a concrete wasteland,” recalled Larry Nettles, a V&E Environmental and Natural Resources partner. “There were streets, office buildings with sidewalks, parking lots — it was just all concrete. Meanwhile, just a few miles south near the Rice University and Hermann Park area, there were massive oak trees, a beautiful sight.”
So how did the flora once limited to certain neighborhoods spread to other parts of the city and beyond? With some serious human intervention that had roots, so to speak, at V&E.
In 1983, V&E partner Jim Rylander decided he wanted to bring some of the beauty of the Rice University area to Houston’s barren downtown. With the help of then-V&E partners Donald L. Howell and Bill Weiland, he founded the tree-planting organization Trees For Downtown Houston. Rylander succeeded in raising tremendous sums of money for the group by making compelling presentations to prospective donors, according to V&E commercial and business litigation partner Harry Reasoner. Reasoner introduced Rylander to some donors and accompanied him on a few presentations.
“Jim had a very persuasive way of demonstrating what a difference trees could make,” Reasoner recalled. “He had an aerial photograph that showed just how barren downtown was, and then he had pictures of other cities with trees and similar urban situations. It didn’t take a lot of imagination to see how dramatically Houston could be improved.”
To quickly secure tax-exempt status and start putting donations to work, Trees For Downtown Houston merged with the Live Oak Society, a live oak-planting group that was already a registered 501(c)3 organization. The new group, now named Trees For Houston, expanded its mission beyond downtown Houston to all of the city and to surrounding counties, too.
Today, Trees For Houston plants and cares for 20,000 new trees in Houston and South Texas each year. Since its inception, it’s planted more than 1,000,000 trees. Funded entirely by private donations, the group brings a variety of trees to esplanades, trails, parks and schoolyards. Its work has been critical in helping Houston earn and keep its “tree city” designation, said Trees For Houston executive director Barry J. Ward.
“Any urban area needs some entity to focus on the replanting of trees,” Ward explained. “Trees out in the forest will replenish themselves. In the urban environment, they can’t do that, so you have loss from old age, you have loss from development, redevelopment, normal loss from disease, all those sorts of things.”
“Cities tend to be good at engineering, but not so good about thinking about trees in the urban environment,” he added. “That’s where Trees For Houston fills the gap.”
Though it’s been well over three decades since Rylander set out to bring more trees to Houston, V&E’s commitment to Trees For Houston and its mission persists. A V&E partner has served on the group’s board of directors since its founding; Nettles, who has a long history of leading efforts to improve Houston’s green spaces, joined the board in 2008 and is currently its vice president. (Howell is also on the board.)
V&E also handles various pro bono legal matters for the group, and it’s not uncommon for Nettles and others from the firm to volunteer at the group’s planting events. Nettles even grows some trees on his own property with an eye toward planting them in areas where they are needed later.
“I enjoy growing trees and taking them from very small trees to the size where they can be transplanted and survive,” he said.
Jim Rylander died in 2002; Trees For Houston named an award in his honor, which it gives to others who have demonstrated commitment to protect, promote and preserve trees in Houston. The award isn’t given annually but rather only when a deserving individual is identified. The most recent honoree was Houston Parks and Recreation Department Director Joe Turner, who received the award in 2016. At the awards ceremony honoring Turner, Abel Gonzales, the Houston Parks and Recreation Department deputy director of Greenspace Management, praised Rylander.
“As stewards of the Houston’s Urban Forest, we are forever grateful to Jim Rylander for his dedication to trees and for the creation of Trees For Houston,” he said.
Reasoner said that V&E’s commitment to Trees For Houston reflects the same values that inspired Rylander. Giving back, Reasoner said, “is part of the spirit of the firm.”