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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Milwaukee's oldest cemetery hopes its tree canopy benefits surrounding ecosystem and neighbors

Sara Tomilin with Forest Home Cemetery and DNR urban tree analyst Dan Buckler amidst just a few of the cemeteries 2600 trees.
Susan Bence
Forest Home Cemetery's Assistant Executive Director Sara Tomilin and DNR urban tree analyst Dan Buckler stand amidst just a few of the cemeteries 2,600 trees.

You may think of cemeteries as oases of peace for many who visit. But Forest Home Cemetery on Milwaukee’s near south side also wants to be known as a place whose tree canopy provides restorative power, especially for people who live nearby.

The cemetery, home to 2600 trees representing 102 species, has been designated as the city’s first accredited arboretum, and the first cemetery with that designation in Wisconsin.

Its accreditation is helping Forest Home Cemetery, including its assistant executive director Sara Tomilin, better understand and manage its canopy.

Up until now, Tomilin spent much of her career raising money for arts organizations.

But when she came on board at Forest Home Cemetery, Tomilin learned it’s not only Milwaukee’s oldest cemetery dating back to 1850, but it was designed by renowned naturalist and scientist Increase Lapham.

"Increase Lapham who was the city surveyor at the time was asked to do this, and he kept the idea of it looking natural, and the rolling hills. It’s something he was inspired to do because that was sort of the movement at the time," Tomilin said.

Lapham and his family are buried at the cemetery, as are many renowned Milwaukee beer barons and other prominent residents.

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Their grave sites are surrounded by a sea of trees, many of which are very old. Tomilin unexpectedly had an opportunity to think about caring for them last year.

"When I came on board, and I had the time because of a pandemic, one of the things that came up was that the cemetery is a nonprofit so we could apply for a DNR grant," Tomilin said.

Tomilin said happily Forest Home Cemetery received the grant. It paid to inventory Forest Home’s trees, all 2600 of them.

Arborist Nate Paulus working his way through Forest Home's trees in 2020.
Sara Tomilin
Arborist Nate Paulus working his way through Forest Home's trees in 2020.

"I think we got the grant in January and by February we had two arborists out here, up to their waists, falling over wearing snow shoes, [and] cataloguing all of these trees," Tomilin said. "All the trees have silver disks on them and we know where they are by GPS on our tree inventory that’s online. We also know the species [and] we know what status they are, as far as their condition goes."

A tagged tree in Forest Home Cemetery.
Sara Tomilin
A tagged tree in Forest Home Cemetery.

The grant also covered Forest Home Cemetery's first-ever tree management plan that called for immediate action. "We removed 20 dead trees and planted 35 new ones," Tomilin said.

Tomilin said the process came with a bonus. "We were astonished by their eco benefits. We are giving out over $350,000 in eco benefits every year," she said.

The company that inventoried Forest Home Cemetery's trees also developed the calculations that include how much storm water the canopy is able to soak up.

Listen to Susan Bence's extended conversation with Sara Tomilin and Dan Buckler.

Wisconsin DNR urban tree analyst Dan Buckler said the eco benefits don’t end there.

"Trees and canopy also cool neighborhoods... and that’s just not through the shade that they’re throwing off, but also the evapotranspiration, which is how trees take up water and transport it through their stems and out through their leaves. That has a significant cooling effect on the surrounding area," Buckler said.

Sixty percent of Forest Home Cemetery is canopied by trees. Buckler said that’s particularly good news for the densely developed neighborhoods that surround the cemetery.

"Generally this south side area has a lot less canopy than Milwaukee overall, and so this space is just really important to provide that nearby nature for people," Buckler said.

Buckler said study after study points to the importance of people getting regular doses of nature.

"I don’t know what that dosage is, I don’t know if it’s five minutes or 30 minutes, but again, every study reinforces this general idea that in order to be our greatest selves, we need to walk amongst the trees," Buckler said.

Sara Tomilin said she’s looking for ways to encourage people, especially those living nearby, to soak up the cemetery’s nature. Forest Home Cemetery has offered yoga classes and a nature walk.

"The long term plan is to bring meaningful programming that really speaks to people in the neighborhood [and] that’s convenient for them," Tomilin said.

Molly Barwick will lead Forest Home's tree management program after she completes MATC program.
Sara Tomilin
Molly Barwick will lead Forest Home's tree management program after she completes MATC program.

Tomilin said the Forest Home team is already responding to its tree focus.

"We’re sending one of our grounds crew to MATC to get her horticultural diploma. And she is going to be our beautification coordinator. Her own little team will have [to] scurry around here, and make everything pretty and take care of the trees," Tomilin said.

The crew will literally have its work cut out for them.

Parts of the Forest Home Cemetery canopy pre-date the cemetery’s creation. That means a majestic collection of trees, but DNR urban tree analyst Dan Buckler said younger trees need to become more plentiful to sustain the canopy.

"Forest Home, despite its greatness, still has a diversity issue... here it’s a standard tale of too many Norway maples and too many maples in general," Buckler explained.

As Forest Home Cemetery moves into its seven-year tree management plan, the cemetery will diversify its canopy with dozens of different tree species.

Sara Tomilin said visitors can count on the arboretum remaining majestic.

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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