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Why Trees Matter So Much — for the Health of People and the Planet

With Jad Daley and Sarah Emola

sun peaking through trees

Season 8, Episode 6 | April 23, 2024

From cooling and cleaning the air to improving our mental and physical well-being, the effects that trees have on our health are more powerful and wide-reaching than many of us may realize — or give them credit for. In this episode, we discuss the significance of trees with Jad Daley, chief executive officer of American Forests, and Sarah Emola, executive director of the Life Time Foundation and ESG programs at Life Time. We also talk about how these two organizations are working together to plant more trees and protect existing forests and habitats.

Jad Daley leads the strategic direction of American Forests and serves as its “chief engagement officer” in building diverse partnerships to advance American Forests’ mission. Tapping into his skills and experience related to program development, he also is directly involved in the organization’s programmatic work, such as forest-climate science, policy development, and communications.

Daley was named president and chief executive officer in 2018, after leading the effort to center the organization’s work on climate change and social equity. He has a long history of leadership on these issues, having co-founded the Forest-Climate Working Group and the US Chapter, and establishing the first-ever climate change program at The Trust for Public Land. Daley has played a leading role in authoring federal legislation to establish federal forest programs, among other accomplishments.

Sarah Emola is the executive director of the Life Time Foundation and ESG programs at Life Time. With a mission-driven focus, she leads Life Time’s broader ESG strategy and couldn’t be happier to be helping inspire happy people, a healthy planet, and a healthy way of life with the Life Time Foundation.

In this episode, Daley and Emola speak to the essential and far-reaching impacts of trees, including the following:

  • Trees absorb carbon dioxide. Forests and trees in the United States currently absorb about 16 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions from sources like automobiles and smokestacks. (Carbon dioxide is the main driver of climate change.)
  • Trees scrub air pollution. In the United States alone, more than 17 million tons of air pollutants are captured out of the air every year by forests and trees. (Air pollutants can harm our respiratory systems.)
  • Trees provide clean drinking water. Over half of the drinking water in our country originates in forests. Our ability to access a clean glass of water without a second thought is dependent on the health and resilience of a forest.
  • Trees influence our mood. There’s powerful research showing the positive impact that trees can have on mental health, including how simply looking at them can reduce cortisol levels in your body and make you feel happier. Studies show that kids learn better in school, and patients in hospitals recover faster, if there are trees visible from a window, for example.
  • Trees act as nature’s air conditioners. There has already been at least a 20 percent increase in the number of days where heat affects even moderate activity levels outdoors — and that number of days is expected to rise dramatically in just the next few decades. Underneath its canopy, a tree provides a cooling benefit of 20 to 45 degrees F by way of evapotranspiration, which is the way trees exchange moisture with the environment.

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Transcript: Why Trees Matter So Much — for the Health of People and the Planet

Season 8, Episode 6  | April 23, 2024


Welcome to Life Time Talks, the podcast that’s aimed at helping you achieve your health, fitness, and life goals. I’m Jamie Martin, editor-in-chief of Experience Life, Life Time’s whole life health and fitness magazine. And I’m David Freeman, director of Alpha, one of Life Time’s signature group training programs.

We’re all in different places along our health and fitness journey, but no matter what we’re working toward, there are some essential things we can do to keep moving in the direction of a healthy purpose-driven life.

In each episode, we break down various elements of healthy living, including fitness and nutrition, mindset and community, and health issues. We’ll also share real, inspiring stories of transformation.

And we’ll be talking to experts from Life Time and beyond who share their insights and knowledge so you’ll have the tools and information you need to take charge of your next steps. Here we go.


Hey everyone, welcome to another episode of Life Time Talks. In this episode, we are talking about a very important part of our environment, trees. We know that spring starts in March, but in April is often when we celebrate nature. And we have Earth Day on April 22nd, we have Arbor Day on April 26th. And I’m really excited today to talk a little bit about trees and how we are taking care of them at Life Time.

So at Life Time, our commitment is healthy people, healthy planet, healthy way of life. And in 2023, we began refocusing our efforts on the healthy planet aspect via the Life Time Foundation by expanding its focus on forestation and conservation. And these initiatives are really meant to help combat climate change driven by fast rising amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The actions are simple and immediate: Plant more trees and protect existing forests and habitats. To do this, the Life Time Foundation is establishing key partnerships with organizations that are on the forefront of this effort, including American Forests.

In today’s episode, we’re talking with the Life Time Foundation’s Executive Director, Sarah Emola, and American Forests Chief Executive Officer, Jad Daley, about the importance of trees on our health, individual health, public health, global health. And we’ll also be talking on how the work we’re specifically doing together is making a difference. So with that, Jad and Sarah, welcome to Life Time Talks. Thanks so much for being here.

Thanks so much for having us. Really excited.

Well, I’m just going to do a little bit about each of you. I want to make sure everyone knows who you are and what you’re doing for your different organizations. So Sarah Emola is the executive director of the Life Time Foundation and ESG programs at Life Time. With a mission-driven focus, she leads Life Time’s broader ESG strategy and couldn’t be happier to help inspire healthy people, a healthy planet, and healthy way of life with the Foundation.

Jed Daley leads the strategic direction of American Forests and serves as its chief engagement officer in building diverse partnerships to advance American Forests’ mission. Tapping into his skills and experience related to program development, he is also directly involved in the organization’s programmatic work such as forest climate science, policy development, and communications. Daley was named president and chief executive officer in 2018 after leading the effort to center the organization’s work on climate change and social equity. He has a long history of leadership on these issues, having co-founded the Forest Climate Working Group and the US chapter and establishing the first ever climate change program at the Trust for Public Land. He has played a leading role in authoring federal legislation to establish federal forest programs among many other accomplishments.

This is going to be a great conversation. So, I’m going to jump right in and I want start by kicking it right to you, Sarah, cause I want to make sure that people know what the Life Time Foundation is and then how it has evolved over the years to how we’ve gotten to this point of kind of focusing on the healthy planet aspect. So what is the Life Time Foundation and how did we get here?

So thank you so much for letting me talk about the Life Time Foundation. So Life Time has always been a very philanthropic company contributing to the communities in which we serve. We’ve been around since 2003. It wasn’t until 2010 that we really started honing in on some of our main program areas. So since 2010, we’ve been focused on our youth nutrition program. That’s been focused around getting our kids’ school lunches to a healthier spot. So every day, our kids go to school and they get fed things like ultra-processed foods, ingredients of concern, and it’s our goal to help make that systematic change. So when they’re at school, they’re just eating healthy, nourishing ingredients to be able to nourish their minds and brains as they’re going throughout their day.

So we do that by advocating for scratch cooking, right — whole foods, making sure our lunches are actually made, not so far pre-made that all the nutritional ingredients are gone. We also have created a nutrition software called Green Onion, which actually identifies ingredients of concern in ultra-processed foods and provides school nutrition professionals a healthier alternative to be able to order for our children.

And it’s just been really great to see how this program has grown and thrived throughout the year since 2010. And then in 2021, we actually launched a second branch of our Healthy People mission, and that was our Get Kids Moving program. That’s aimed at breaking down barriers of access to physical activity for today’s youth, such as school budget cuts, high pay to play sports, community program offerings, and just providing safe spaces for our kids to get out and fall in love with movement, however that looks for them. In today’s age of electronics, even my own children, I know we find them sitting inside and sedentary and it’s just so important to get out in any way that, you know, sings to them and makes their heart feel full, whether that’s through organized sports, whether that’s through recreational activity, however it may be, we’re trying to break those barriers so all kids have options.

That’s what we’ve done and we’ve kept thinking, how can we do more? And by doing more, how can we look to the future? And that future is simple, right? We have to make sure that the generations in the future have the same opportunities to live a healthy way of life as we do today. And how can we do that today? By building a healthy foundation, which is a healthy planet, making sure that they have access to the foods and farming, making sure that those green spaces still are there. So, what we’re trying to do is specific and very simple, just as you said, Jamie, plant more trees, provide those recreational spaces and conserve what we have today, right. We have beautiful green areas today and we just need to conserve what we have. So, in September, 2023, we actually did just that. We added environmental conservation as our Healthy Planet branch.

You know, trees have such a healing power. It’s, they give all essential life to humans, to our wildlife, to habitat. So, we’re really working to reverse the negative impacts of our generation and what we’ve done. We all know that the heat has been rising. CO2 is rising and heat is rising. And we’re doing all we can to preserve and protect our planet by our trees to ensure that the future is brighter and greener so all can live healthier, happier lives.

I love having been a long time Life Time team member to see the evolution to where we’ve come and it’s been really exciting, especially in the last year or so to really see us kind of shifting that focus to the healthy planet and specifically forestation and conservation. And that’s what’s allowed us to partner with American Forests is one example. And so, Jad, I’d love to hear from you about the mission of American Forests and why this partnership is exciting for you.

Jamie, thanks so much. I’m really so grateful to be here. I’m so grateful. We are so grateful to this partnership with Life Time. I mean, just to hear Sarah talk about that commitment to the well-being of our communities, to the well-being of our planet. I’m just so grateful a Life Time for stretching in that way, for all those things we’re doing, including things you’re not doing with American Forest, all the things you’re doing, but we’re just so grateful to now be partners in the tree and forest piece of this equation.

Jamie, one little parenthetical note from my bio I think I should share with your listeners so that people know that we speak the same language, which is that my other great passion in life is being an athlete, an endurance athlete, and it’s something I picked up, came out of college and my friend was a record setting runner and I was training for a different sport and I started chasing him around like this running thing is cool. You know, and so I’ve been, you know, participating myself in training and marathons and triathlons and still doing it here in my mid-50s. It’s a big part of my life. And so I, I feel the Life Time community. I appreciate people who are out there, you know, just doing this thing every day and living healthy, active lifestyles.

And so I have a personal real excitement about connecting with that community because I know the people who use and enjoy the places and spaces that we’re working for, the healthy environment that we’re working for, no one appreciates that more than the people who are breathing a little bit harder, the people who are getting out there and using it. And so I’m just really excited to connect with this community and think all the ways that we can do this work, a bigger and better together as fellow travelers in this kind of a lifestyle.

And so here’s the story about American Forest. We’re the oldest forest conservation organization in America founded in 1875. And we’ve been looking out for the well-being of our trees and forests ever since and led big innovations. Like we actually led the charge to create the U.S. Forest Service at the federal government so we’d have one lead agency for taking care of our forests and other major tectonic changes in how we care for our forests in America.

But five years ago, we took a step back and realized that we faced some new modern challenges that we need our trees and forests to help us solve. And Sarah spoke about one of them, climate change. Trees and forests offer profound solutions to climate change that we can get into later. And so we take that as one of our key goals. Social equity. The fact that trees and forests can, for example, improve our health means that assuring that everyone has access to the benefits in trees and forests is part of delivering health equity in our community. So that’s another core anchor value for us.

And then two of the old fashioned priorities for trees and forests are the role that they play in protecting biodiversity, the fish and wildlife and other creatures that we share this planet with, and our water. Our forests play an incredibly important role — we can get into more detail later — in collecting and filtering our water supplies. And so those are really four anchor priorities for American forests. And we wake up every day and say, we’re trying to be service leaders, bringing together all sorts of different partners, those who are in the traditional forest community and fellow travelers and partners like Life Time and bringing everyone together to take care of our trees and forests in ways that they can provide those profound benefits to us. And there are just three kind of key roles that we try to play, contributions that we try to make in particular in that area. The first is we have what we call our innovation lab, which is where we essentially figure out where do we need to do this work and what do we need to do? How do we press the practice of forestry so that we’re working in the highest impact places?

For example, we created something called Tree Equity Score. We mapped every urban neighborhood in America to figure out where are trees most lacking and where is that most impacting health equity in our communities so that we’re driving that investment to the places where trees will have the greatest impact. But whether it’s in cities or large landscapes, you got to put the right trees in the right places. And so we’re really proud to be leaders. We have PhD scientists whose expertise is figuring out what are the most effective tree species and even the genetics of the species, how we plant them and care for them so that when we put more trees in the landscape and when we have existing forests, how do we do the work of forestry in ways that we can get those profound benefits like helping to slow climate change, like providing direct health benefits for communities, protecting biodiversity and so much more. So that innovation lab, that leadership in where and what to do is the foundation of our work. And then we also try to lead by example. And so we’re not an ivory tower organization. We’re out there on the ground with partners like the National Park Service. We’ll talk a lot more about that later, I’m sure, doing restoration projects, doing things like reforesting burned and degraded lands in our national forests, in our national parks, and other places that I’m sure Life Time members like to go out and enjoy.

And so we really think it’s important to be doing this work ourselves and making it happen on the ground. And then the third component of our work is movement building because we don’t keep score as an organization by how many trees, for example, that American Forest and our partners like Life Time plant, we want to simultaneously give everyone the capacity to do more of this work. So whether it’s advocating in public policy for more public sector investment, whether it’s taking those new scientific innovations and tools that I talked about and helping other people learn how to use them or leading large forest coalitions so we can learn from each other and work more effectively as a whole forest community. We just take really seriously the idea that success is about what we all did together as a society.

And so we believe that the solutions that we can unlock with our trees and forests require all hands on deck. And so governments to Girl Scouts. And so that movement building for us is a really important piece and making sure every person in the movement can find their place in this work and has the resources to do it really well.

Well, thanks for that comprehensive overview. I think it’s so important for people to understand, you know, how long the organization’s been around, but also the various ways that you’re working to make a difference. It’s amazing. We, you know, obviously the focus of this episode is really about those trees and we all know that trees are so valuable. But when it really comes to like the specific ways they can impact our health, whether it’s individual health, public health, global health, I mean, we may not be aware of the full extent of that. So we’d love to talk a little bit about the magic of trees, because I know that, yes, they, we know they are an essential part of like the system of photosynthesis and all those pieces, but they’re also air conditioners you’ve described them as. So tell us a little bit like, tell us why you see trees as such a magical kind of resource that we have.

Absolutely. Well, I’ll tell you what, I’m going to hold that nature’s air conditioning aside for a minute, because that’s a whole fascinating topic unto itself. But I want to focus on two things that I think are very foundational to our health: clean air and clean water. And the role that trees play, think of trees as like a green sponge. Trees and forests are like a magic green sponge that are out there. And it’s really fascinating when it comes to air that trees absorb both carbon dioxide, which is the main driver of climate change. In fact, our trees in forests in the United States give you a sense of scale. Currently absorbed from the atmosphere, about 16% of the carbon dioxide emissions that we emit from our smokestacks and tailpipes and sources like that. So they’re providing a huge benefit in terms of slowing climate change. They’re basically trading CO2 and our challenges with too much CO2 and they’re trading back oxygen in exchange. That’s a good deal. But the other part that a lot of people might not be aware of is the role that trees play in scrubbing air pollutants, the kinds of air pollutants that harm our respiratory systems, smog in effect, out of the air. And so our trees and forests across the United States capture more than 17 million tons of those kinds of air pollutants out of the air every year. So, again, for the heavy breathing crowd here, the Life Time community that’s out there exercising and especially appreciates the value of clean air to breathe. Trees and forests, whether it’s the ones in your community or also the ones farther away, are working together as an air purification system.

And that alone would be enough, but we also have the need that we all value so much the clean water that comes out of our taps. And a lot of people don’t realize is that over half of the drinking water, in our country originates in forests. So, you know, over half our drinking water is being collected by a forest out somewhere, filtered, and then is actually being brought in some cases long distances to the communities where we live. And so our ability to turn that tap and say, oh yeah, of course, another glass of clean water and just knock it back without thinking about it is actually dependent on the health and resilience of a forest far away that’s that green sponge now acting as a filtration device for water. So just take those two services alone and trees are absolutely essential to our health and well-being.

But I’ll just add one more capstone there, which I think a lot of people don’t underestimate, which is the impact of trees on mental health. And we actually have very powerful research showing that trees have a calming effect on us and so have a significant impact on our mental health and well-being. And we all understand, I think — especially those of us who understand how much it impacts our mental well-being when we exercise and how much it impacts our mental well-being when we don’t — how much those things are interconnected, our health and well-being, our mental health and our physical health are so interconnected. And so the fact that trees have this demonstrated, a research-tested effect on people’s mental health, just looking at them literally makes us happier, makes us feel better, makes us, reduces the cortisol levels in our bodies is really significant.

And that even radiates to things like there are studies showing that kids in schools actually learn better if there’s a tree outside the window. That is who have a tree outside the window of a hospital room recover faster. So it just tells you just how powerful that mental health benefit is. And so those anyway are a couple of the really exciting, I think, benefits that we get from trees to healthy communities.

There’s something to be said about when we’re in a stressful situation and you just need to get away from the situation, what do you say? I need to go catch a breather. I need to take a walk. I need to get out in nature because I need to just take my mind out of where I’m at, get around trees which are providing us the oxygen in which we’re breathing, and just that calms you down and gets you to a place where you’re just feeling much more stable and much more grounded in a stressful situation. Like there is absolutely that core tie between stress management and mental well-being and getting outside and into nature and into trees.

Well, I just want to add, you know, we’ve done some coverage in Experience Life magazine on the practice of forest bathing or, you know, grounding and going out. And this is huge. I mean, this has been a practice in various cultures for a long time, but actually getting out, kind of walking barefoot in the grass, there’s the grounding piece, but then being out among the trees, there’s proof about like, I think it’s called phytoncides, that trees actually release into the air that are really beneficial for all of us.

Jamie, we are going to designate you as a tree champion. Thank you so much. That’s exactly right. You dropped some knowledge there on our listeners. I really appreciate that. Yeah, it’s absolutely incredible, that forest bathing effect. I won’t repeat what you said, but it just goes to show, I think — and the beauty of it is a forest bathing is it’s experiencing, it’s sort of mixing movement and exercise with that mental health benefit and bringing it all together. And so that’s one of the reasons why we feel it’s really important to make sure, again, that everyone has access to that benefit, right? There are too many communities that don’t have trees or key parts of our communities in particular, the less affluent parts of our communities that systemically don’t have trees. And so if you don’t have the ability to go have that experience, create that experience for yourself, that perpetuates really profound health inequities in our society.

Well, I want to keep going on the kind of, we talked a little bit about, you know, we have an active audience of listeners here, you know, and one thing that you recently shared, Jad, in a talk that you gave at the World Government Summit, you noted that there has already been a 20% increase in days where the heat affects even moderate activity levels in the outdoors. And that it’s expected that it’s going to continue to rise, like those number of days, that’s going to continue to increase. So as I said, seeing as we know that Life Time focus is on activity, it would be great to hear from you about the role of trees in public health and recreation.

Absolutely. Well, one thing is for sure, it really emphasizes that we need to have great indoor and outdoor spaces so that people can live that healthy lifestyle no matter what the weather is. But the reality is, you can’t air condition a street, right? And so it’s really, really vital that we design our cities so that people can have the maximum opportunity to pursue both outdoor recreation as well as just simply walking and moving about their communities safely during the hotter months. And that statistic that you mentioned, again, 20% increase in the number of days where even moderate physical activity is dangerous. And by the way, that same research showed that rate of those dangerous days is going to increase dramatically in just the next few decades. And so a critical thing that we can do to cool our communities in outdoor spaces is have more trees. And in particular, align them with what we call cool corridors. So we find those critical walk bike routes and put nature’s air conditioning in those places where people are most going to want and need to exercise.

To give folks a sense of how powerful nature’s air conditioning is, get this. Underneath a tree, it provides a cooling benefit between 20 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit. So it’s not just the power of shade, which you probably already understand it has a cooling effect, but trees actually have a — they do something called evapotranspiration, which is the way that trees exchange moisture with the environment actually adds like an additional air conditioning effect. And so these literally are like mobile air condition, they’re nature air conditioners that we can place around our communities. And so back to what I told you, my own personal passion for my own exercise activities, I know firsthand, you know, how hard it is in hot days to find places that feel safe to exercise. And so we need to be more intentional about aligning tree cover in our communities for that safe travel for these cool corridors. We need to make sure they’re equitably distributed so that people who face the greatest barriers to accessing safe places to exercise. We show that those folks have access to.

And then in case that all wasn’t enough, the one other kicker is, and remember I talked earlier about the roles that trees play in reducing air pollution. So think about where these walking and biking routes, for example, run near roadways. If you have cooling trees, you get the double benefit of 20 to 45 degrees of nature’s air conditioning and the fact that trees deflect and absorb air pollution. So it’s literally making the air cooler and cleaner, so we have better places to recreate outside and we can do it all year-round.

Well, Sarah, I want to jump over to you for a second because, you know, I know we’ve talked a little bit about tree equity, we’re talking about cooling quarters, but I know there’s being work done in different areas to plant trees in areas around schools, for instance. And can you talk a little bit about what some of that work is? Because I know it’s been thinking about like certain schools that don’t have a lot of trees there, what the benefit could be in that space. And since we’re so focused on schools at Life Time, how does that impact them when we focus on that tree side of it?

Yeah, absolutely. So, I mean, we say that children are sponges and we see that in our everyday life, right? Like, so when you start talking to children about how important it is to protect and preserve our environment, they listen, they hear it. And where are they doing all this learning? And that’s in their schools. So we talk about where we can make schoolyards greener, how we can incorporate learning into that, into that play space in their schoolyards, right? So we, in some of the programs that we’ve done, we’ve seen increase in STEM scores where there are those greater spaces where the kids are getting outside and learning about trees, planting trees, and really having that ownership of putting something living into the ground and seeing what grows. So increased STEM scores, increased math scores, and increased conservation and just knowledge of how to treat our planet better. So yes, we work a lot with schools and that is just a really continuing education piece in the expansion of how we’re working with schools.

Jad also mentioned just in some of the areas that don’t have greener spaces, so in those more concrete jungle areas, getting those children that live in those communities, some may be underrepresented in those green spaces, just is so important to get them to love the environment and love the trees as much as we should be.

Can I riff on this for a minute because I think there’s something really important I want folks to know — Sarah, she just shared something really critical, which is connecting the issue of equity with these profound health and mental well-being benefits that we’ve been talking about. And folks need to know that in America today, we have a systemic inequity of tree covers. In fact, if you look at a map of trees in any state of America, it’s like a map of income. It’s also a map of race in ways that transcend income. And we actually proved this, American Forests would create something called Tree Equity Score. Anyone wants to check this out, — free, easy to use on the internet.

And what we did is we mapped every single urban neighborhood in America using a standardized approach to figure out how much tree cover should be there. And by the way, it’s very different, say, in Phoenix versus Boston. So this accounts for the differences in potential tree cover from one place to another. And basically says, in each neighborhood, how’s that neighborhood doing against what we should find in a neighborhood in that city?

And then it correlates it with economic indicators, age, race, health status as measured by the CDC, and the actual temperature differential down to the decimal point in that neighborhood compared to the citywide average. And what this data shows is that our lowest income neighborhoods in America, for example, have on average 26% less tree cover and are on average seven degrees Fahrenheit hotter on the hottest days. And neighborhoods with the highest concentration of people of color in our country have on average 38% less tree cover and have on average 10 degrees Fahrenheit hotter on the hottest days. So these are tree inequities that are leading to environmental inequities that are leading to profound health inequities in our community. So that’s why at American Forest we think about this issue of tree equity as a moral imperative. That this is one of those things we need to do to give everyone a fair chance for a healthy life.

And so we’ve been using that data as a tool to guide and support efforts like the amazing work that Sarah was just describing, finding those schools that are in those systemically underserved areas and bringing the tree cover that those students need and deserve. And I’m just so proud that you have cities like Phoenix, Arizona, for example, that looked at this data, brought all these different organizations across the community together, said, what are we going to do about that? And ended up making a city commitment to achieve tree equity in every neighborhood by 2030. It has this incredible rainbow coalition of all sorts of different community groups and city leaders and everyone in between working together to bring trees to those neighborhoods that are needed most, to the schoolyards, like Sarah said, to the parks that have wonderful recreation assets and no shade, building a hundred cool corridors across the city of Phoenix to provide that safe outdoor recreation that I was describing. So, they’re taking everything that we’ve said here in the fifth largest city in America and the fastest growing city in America, and they’re still, with all that happening, they’re making it happen for trees and tree equity.

And I just think that that’s a real signal that we’re making some progress here. We’re getting folks to take this seriously and start treating trees like healthcare for our communities because they are, well, we just talked about our cities and that’s, I think it’s so important to talk about trees as healthcare and then what we’re doing, what these urban, what’s happening in our urban spaces. But then we also know that we have some really daunting threats that are facing our public lands, our national parks system. They’re all facing these things like droughts and pests and wildfires and other things that are, you know, affecting the biodiversity of these really important landscapes. They’re all being worsened by climate change and there are millions of acres across the U.S. that have burned or degraded forests and that are, that we’re hoping to have reforested.

So how does American forests get involved in those cases?

Yeah, thanks so much, Jamie, for raising that issue because, I mean, as I talked about earlier, it’s all interconnected, right? The trees that are doing, playing certain roles in our communities, the larger areas of forest out and around our community, they all work together to give us these benefits of slowing climate change, of protecting public health, of protecting wildlife as they even move across these large landscapes and through our communities and so forth, and our water supplies, which as I was describing earlier, they’re connected from out in these big forests down into our community. So, we really need everything from cities that have healthy tree cover and tree equity all the way out to healthy, resilient national parks and national forests, these big public lands that play an outsized role in things like sequestering really huge amounts of carbon dioxide, of capturing and filtering millions and millions of gallons of water that ultimately people will drink in cities far away.

And as you said, the challenge is right when we need our trees and forests and those big public lands more than ever, we’re losing them faster than ever. Millions and millions of acres more land that’s burning, for example, every year in wildfires that are fueled by climate change, both the way climate change is weakening and killing our forests and also increasing the things that ignite wildfires. So, sick, ailing forests that are more vulnerable to wildfire and then more sources of wildfire ignition leads to these fires that are burning with an intensity and in places that we haven’t seen them before. And so it just means there’s more land to reforest. And then lastly, these fires are burning so intensely that more of the land can’t regrow back without our help. And so it just means that actually going out and reforesting these places is taken on a new level of urgency. And so, yes, we have formed these incredible partnerships with the US Forest Service. We have a comprehensive partnership to co-lead the process with the US Forest Service of reforestation across the entire US National Forest System, working with an incredible group of tribal partners and community organizations and other large national nonprofits. It’s just an incredible team effort working on the National Forest System. A partnership with the National Park Service to reforest 10 national parks in a particularly focused way for species.

I think we’ll talk about a lot more here in a moment, the whitebark pine, where we’re going in and not just replanting forests, but particularly targeting the tree species that are both most at risk and also the ones that provide really special benefits for people and for wildlife. So it’s really these partnerships anchored with the government agencies that take care of those lands, the groups that can come in and do the reforestation, and then partners like Life Time that are coming in with all sorts of different financial support, bringing a community of supporters, like the folks we’re talking to here today, to be champions for this work, and helping us get this work done on the ground.

Well, to that point, I really want to focus for a second now and shift to the partnership between Life Time Foundation and American Forests. And Sarah, I would love to you to speak to like, what does that include and how can people get involved?

Yeah. So first, I just want to say that the Life Time Foundation is incredibly honored to be partnering with American Forest. I mean, the work that Jad has been talking about with Tree Equity Program and building resilient forests is truly what we need from our future. And coming from the oldest forest organization in America, I mean, we trust in the work that you’re doing and we are so happy to support and advocate for your work to keep moving forward. So first of all, thank you for partnering with Life Time. So what are we doing? What is our partnership?

So as Jad mentioned, the whitebark pine, it is actually our most endangered tree and we are working to preserve and conserve and get that tree off of the endangered species list. So the whitebark pine, it paints such a beautiful picture to be to think about some of the highest mountain tops in our most beautiful national parks like Yellowstone, Glacier, Yosemite. The whitebark pine actually sits on top of those mountain tops and is a really key, vital, life-giving tree for many of the, much of the wildlife and the water that’s available up there. It has a unique ability to be resilient to the harsh climates that you might find in those northern areas, as well as, like I said, providing pine nuts as a primary food from the whitebark pine for our grizzly bears. So our grizzly bears depend on that. So it’s providing life to our wildlife, providing water, and right now it’s endangered and we need to do everything we can.

So what are we doing? We are providing some science-based research, monitoring of the whitebark pine, as well as planting disease-resistant whitebark pine seedlings and trees across the US parks. Some of the activities that we’re funding are direct seeding projects, planting 10 ,000 disease-resistant whitebark pine trees, monitoring and surveying whitebark pine population, cone collection, research and development, workforce development to support a wide range of restoration activities with the goal of preserving what’s left of the whitebark pine and getting it off of the endangered species list for good.

Jad, how long has the whitebark pine been on the endangered species list and how long has the American forest been focused on it?

Yeah, Jamie, I’m really excited to say a little bit more about the whitebark pine and Sarah did such a great job and I want to come back to one really cool thing and important thing she said about the importance of it for wildlife. They say you shouldn’t feed the wildlife in national parks, which is true. This is actually one way we can actually help feed the wildlife. Grizzly bears eat the seeds from the pine cones of whitebark pine, like hungry teenagers in a 7-11, okay? Like we have video of this and folks can check this out on the website, which is kind of part of the American Forest website, Check me out on this, go check it out. We have video from the Cornell Lab, where it’s showing these grizzly bear going in and finding these hashes of whitebark pine seeds, and they’re just eating them like crazy because these are incredibly caloric. It’s like half a stick of butter’s worth of calorie in whitebark pine seed, fat and calories. And so they’re just these, it’s a very unique food source.

And what Sarah was talking about, this is America’s most tenacious tree. Okay, like tenacity is the word I think about. I was standing amongst these trees in Yellowstone National Park, and like she was saying, they grow where nothing else can grow. So think about the wildlife that, you know, that don’t have other alternatives, but also think about these amazing high mountain places that are some of America’s most spectacular recreation opportunities. Without the whitebark pine, that’s just rock and ice. That’s what it comes down to. This is the tree that kind of protects and defines these landscapes. It makes them better for wildlife, better for holding water and holding snowpack, better places for us to recreate in. It keeps the landscape stable. There’s all these ways in which this is really the keystone to the health and the functionality of high-mount landscapes all across the West United States. And so our national parks are such a cool place to sort of rally the resistance.

Your question, Jamie, the whitebark pine was just listed on the Endangered Species Act just actually last year, but it’s been an issue that’s been coming at us for decades. And 325 million whitebark pine have died just to get people a sense of scale. So this is the farthest ranging tree ever put on the endangered species list. It was announced last year, we have vast areas where we’ve lost this tenacious tree. And so if we can’t get in and replant, and as Sarah said, replant was specially cultivated, I talk about we pride ourselves on using our forestry smarts. The forestry smarts, and we work with tribal partners who bring incredible traditional ecological knowledge to bring together with other forms of scientific understanding. So we’re synthesizing that kind of tribal knowledge and our scientists and their expertise, and we’re specially selecting the trees from which we collect these cones, how we grow and cultivate and grow seeds into seedlings. And so that whether it’s direct seeding or planting seedlings, we’re doing both techniques. What we are planting is we know is going to thrive and survive in ways that all these trees that we’re losing have it. And so I just really want to salute Life Time that the field of corporate partnership in this kind of work has evolved incredibly. American Forest actually pioneered the whole idea of corporate partners coming in and helping to pay for reforestation, but it was often just sort of paying for trees. It wouldn’t provide, for example, as Sarah talked about, the support for the science. We actually are planting the right trees.

It wouldn’t support for — working with tribal partners to develop workforce programs so we have the people to go out and plant the trees and to take care of them afterwards. All the pieces to really get this right. And so it’s just amazing that Life Time said, hey, we want to be in, we’re in for all of it. We want to understand what a success really looked like. How do we really get the whitebark pine? We know what we’ve been doing hasn’t been working clearly. How do we change the game here? And how do we use our national parks as the place that we rally a comeback? Every athlete knows we’ve all been down. I’m going on come back like number 3,000 in my athletic career. We know what a comeback looks like in the athletic realm.

We’re mounting the biggest comeback ever seen in the ecological health of America. And we’re dealing with the whitebark pine, our most threatened tree, our hardest case, and we’re using our national parks as really the heart of the comeback plan. And so, what Life Time’s just come in to, we want to help you with every aspect of getting this right. And that’s what we are doing together. And I can tell you, it’s having a huge ripple effect that other public lands, this is now helping impact how we’re going to do this on national forests and on other areas outside our national parks as well. So, it’s really exactly what we need to do to get this right.

I love hearing like that, you know, we’re doing this work in these spaces that are just a part of our nation, right? Like this is just a, they’re landmarks for us. And if we need to take care of them, right? And this is one way that, you know, we can do this at Life Time, but then other people can also get involved as you mentioned the website. Sarah, I want to just take a second to make sure we let listeners know how they can specifically support the Life Time Foundation’s efforts to do this for the whitebark pine. How can they get involved?

Yeah, so for our Life Time members, you’ll actually see some campaigning happening in the month of April, which is Earth Month for Life Time. And all of the donations that you receive or that we receive over the course of April to support this campaign will go directly to American Forest and to save the whitebark pine to get it off of the endangered species list.

And moving forward, you can also go to We have a lot of information on our website about how to save the whitebark pine as well as a lot of the other programs that we’ve been working on. And just to find out more about how you can make an impact with the Life Time Foundation. Well, Sarah, Jad, we’ve covered a lot of ground here. Anything that we missed or we want to make sure we cover off on before we sign off of this episode today?

Well, Jamie, I’ll just add one thing. You know, I think, so people really feel us on this one that we’ve talked a lot about trees, but I want to make really clear that for American Forests, we love trees, but it’s not about the trees. It’s about what trees can do for us, can do for people, can do for wildlife, can do for resources like water. And so I think that’s really important. And I just want to really emphasize that in the process of doing this work, we’re impacting well-being in ways we haven’t touched, for example, like economic well-being. Our research shows we create about 25 jobs for every million dollars that we invest in doing the kind of reforestation work that we’ve talked about today. And so it’s really exciting that we’re working with tribal partners, we’re working in those kinds of urban areas that we were talking about earlier. We’re working with people from extremely disadvantaged neighborhoods, in some cases formerly incarcerated persons, and helping people who are facing the greatest barriers to economic opportunity in our society be part of this comeback story, be part of the Tree Equity story, be part of saving the whitebark pine.

And so I just think, I hope people really know that we’re excited about trees, but what we’re really excited about is what they can do for all of us. And we want to create every possible benefit for our people and our communities, the way we come together in doing this work. That’s a big part of it. And that includes our youth as well. We’re really proud to have a partnership with the Girl Scouts and the Girl Scout Tree Promise. And so Sarah spoke about working at schools and I want to note that this whitebark pine work, the Girl Scouts are actually going to be out at Yellowstone helping us do some of this whitebark pine recovery work and there are other youth organizations that were getting involved.

So just know that we want every single person of all ages, anyone who’s interested to be part of this. I’m so excited that Life Time’s inviting Life Time members to directly engage with this campaign and be part of it through the websites that Sarah spoke about. And we want to stay connected because we need everyone’s voices. We need your support. And I will, and we want to build a community and movement here that has a place for everyone.

I second Jad’s notion of just getting involved in any way that you can, right? Whether it’s in your local community, whether it’s in a planting event, however it feels right for you to get involved, to make sure that we are conserving and preserving what we have today. Get out and plant some trees. I mean, it’s April, it’s time to go plant trees. And if that is what serves you best, get out into your communities, find a planting event, or donate to a cause that is a reforestation project, however it feels best for you, just get out and make an impact.

Planting trees is exercise. You can write down your training log, we promise. It’s a good exercise.

I love it. Well, it brings us right back. Healthy people, healthy planet, healthy way of life, and hopefully preparing for the next healthy generation. We want to leave this place better than it is right now, and that’s one of the opportunities we have. So, I want to let our listeners know that they can find links to all of the resources that we’ve mentioned on the show notes for this episode. We’ll make sure to link to those from the American Forest website, We’ll talk about the Save the Whitebark Pine. And, you know, we just want people to get involved and know that even a small action, though it may seem like a little thing, can actually make a really big difference.

So, Jad, Sarah, thank you so much for joining me today. I really appreciate you taking the time to be with me and to talk about this important topic.

Thanks so much.

Thanks. It’s been a pleasure.


Thanks for joining us for this episode. As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts on our conversation today and how you approach this aspect of healthy living in your own life. What works for you? Where do you run into challenges? Where do you need help? And if you have topics for future episodes, you can share those with us too. Email us at or reach out to us on Instagram, @jamiemartinel, and @freezy30 and use the hashtag #LifeTimeTalks.

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Life Time Talks is a production of Life Time Healthy Way of Life. It is produced by Molly Kopischke and Sarah Ellingsworth with audio engineering by Peter Perkins, video production and editing by Kevin Dixon, sound and video consulting by Coy Larson, and support from George Norman and the rest of the team at Life Time Motion. A big thank you to everyone who helps create each episode and provides feedback.


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