Aaron Sawatsky-Kingsley

Aaron Sawatsky-Kingsley

City Forester/ERD Director – City of Goshen

Published Nov. 2023

One Tree at a Time

This is a busy time of year. It’s tree planting season. We’ll likely be planting up to Thanksgiving, and possibly even into December. There are so many details that go into every step of tree planting. We coordinate with property owners, go to all the sites, put all the stakes in the ground, get the prep work done, and we have to call 811 to check for underground utilities before any actual digging is done.

I’m thankful to have a lot of support in my dual role as City Forester and Director of Goshen’s Department of Environmental Resilience. Melanie Helmuth and Kendel Martin are our Urban Forestry Assistants, and we have many co-workers, community partners, and volunteers who help year in and year out with what’s always a significant amount of work.

It can be frenetic in November, but—eventually—it becomes very gratifying as the trees start to go in the ground.

The 2018 flood and Goshen’s youth-inspired CAP

Anyone who was in Goshen in 2018 remembers what happened in February. The Elkhart River crested at 12.53 feet. The ground was frozen, and the combination of snowmelt and heavy rainfall resulted in runoff that caused the largest flooding event in Goshen’s recorded history.

In response to that event, in 2019, there was a Youth Environmental Resolution brought before the City Council—championed by Goshen High School students, and college students, and younger students as well—asking for reduction of emissions to net-zero by 2035, and a Climate Action Plan (CAP) to be implemented. The CAP included requests for an urban canopy goal and an office that could oversee various new projects. The City Council passed the resolution with a 6-0 vote and that was the impetus for the 2020 creation of Goshen’s Department of Environmental Resilience (ERD), brought into being by then-Mayor Jeremy Stutsman.

I’d been serving as the City Forester since 2006, and the mayor asked me if I was interested in also serving as Director of the ERD. Once the ERD was up-and-running, the Division of Forestry was brought over from the Parks Department and placed under the ERD umbrella, allowing Forestry to focus on aspects relating to our CAP, such as our important goal of achieving a 45% tree canopy in Goshen by the year 2045.

The reality is that Goshen has a long history of flooding, and forests and trees play an important role in reducing flooding by absorbing and slowing down the flow of rainwater and reducing erosion.

Community involvement moves the CAP wheel

Initially, the CAP was to be mainly implemented through municipal operations, such as Goshen’s Parks and Street departments, before reaching out to the broader community. We couldn’t really ask folks to start adhering to an action plan the city itself had not yet fully integrated. Once we got our house in order, and had our city operations in-line with the plan, we could set the example for how private stakeholders could do their own part.

We quickly realized that many of Goshen’s private property owners, and businesses and organizations, were being proactive to get on board with the action plan and support the ERD’s efforts. Viewrail got outfitted with solar panels and planted a lot of trees, Lippert and Goshen Community Schools installed solar paneling at several different locations and properties, and a lot of local churches got on board; installing solar paneling and working on tree planting to reduce emissions.

When we have the city taking action, and folks outside of the municipal structure being proactive to bolster the plan, and everyone is taking cues from one another—that’s an ideal situation for the action plan to come together. Citizens of Goshen have also been tremendously proactive and supportive of the ERD and our initiatives, even starting a nonprofit organization called Trees for Goshen—for which I volunteer as a consultant—that helps in so many ways to support and further the city’s overall mission.

Trees for Goshen
Aaron Sawatsky-Kingsley, left, and members of the nonprofit organization Trees for Goshen take a break from honeysuckle removal at Goshen’s Nofziger Woods, Sept. 2023. Photo courtesy of Trees for Goshen.

ERD awarded significant grant funding

In September of 2023 we were notified that the City of Goshen and the ERD received a one million dollar grant from the National Forest Service. It was actually a partial funding, and a lot of the credit was due to the great work of grant writer Theresa Sailor. It’s a huge amount of money, and—even in retrospect—it still feels weird to say the words ‘partially-funded’ and ‘one million dollars’ in the same breath.

The money is available over a five-year period and will allow us to enhance arbor education and will fund a lot of our efforts as we work to get closer to our 45% canopy goal. Elkhart, South Bend, and Michigan City were awarded grant funding as well. Northern Indiana was incredibly well represented. That’s a transformational amount of money for all the cities involved, and it’s so important to see the funds spread around because canopy care and canopy growth affects all areas of Northwestern Indiana. If one area in our region is working toward increased canopy, and other communities are not, the overall benefits are not going to be as meaningful in the long run.

The grant funding also allows us to further build out our nursery, which is important, because—with all the forestry funding given out in Northern Indiana—we anticipate there will be a much greater demand for trees. Building out our nursery system ensures we have trees available to us, with an eye on being able to make trees available to our neighboring communities should they have a need.

Many who come to Goshen…

I went to Goshen College, and after I got my BA as an English major I stayed, mainly because a lot of my friends were staying. This was the mid-90s, and Goshen had not yet become what it is today. But it felt like the city was beginning to transform and re-emerge; it seemed to be turning into an interesting cultural and economic hub. Things were beginning to happen all throughout the city; new businesses were opening and rehabilitations—the likes of which would have been unlikely a few years prior—were getting underway.

Goshen seemed like a place that was becoming more accessible and interesting by the moment; there was this growing, compelling energy and it felt like a place I wanted to be part of. The City Forester position was created in 2006 and I applied because I’d become interested in trees. The property where my wife and I were living at the time had a lot of beautiful trees and canopy, and I spent a lot of time educating myself and developing this passion for forestry.

Trees are exceedingly generous. They give, that’s what they do. And the City of Goshen—known as the Maple City—has a long civic tradition of associating with and adopting trees as a symbol of who we are. Strong. Steadfast. Patient.

Far and away, the people of Goshen appreciate the importance of our trees, and it’s so great to work within this community. Especially for someone like me; I believe that caring for trees is caring for people.


Goshen’s Department of Environmental Resilience was established to help promote and protect the public health, to increase safety and general welfare of the community, to enhance and protect the environment, to promote economic development, and to promote the planting, maintenance and removal of trees within the City of Goshen. 

Written by Jake Sandock