Keith Wood, Urban and Community Forestry Committee, National Association of State Foresters
Robert Seemann, Director of Operations, Baton Rouge Green
Anyone who has drawn a breath in the last year has heard the terms “Green Infrastructure,” “Environmental Justice,” and “Tree Equity”. Now funding has suddenly materialized and we are seeing an evolution in the discussion. Rather than simply identifying the problems, as we have for the last decade, we have begun to discuss how the funding for these projects will be put to work.
Much of this money will be directed toward planting trees in areas that have historically been redlined, where the urban heat dome effect can add 10 or more degrees to the ambient temperature found in nearby neighborhoods.
For many cities the projects are already a reality. Syracuse approved a plan to spend $2 million to plant trees. Sacramento has allocated $50 million a year for five years. After a devastating storm in 2020 destroyed two-thirds of their urban forest the city of Cedar Rapids plans to spend $37 million over the next ten years to rebuild their canopy.
These urban initiatives, along with tree-planting campaigns by The Trillion Tree Campaign, One Tree Planted, Trees for the Future, Trees for Cities, Trees for Life, Trees Forever, Plant with Purpose, Plant for the Planet, Plant a Billion Trees, and countless other NGOs, signal a sea-change in urban forestry. Collectively these projects will plant more trees than FDR’s Great Wall of 220 million trees, which put an end to the Dust Bowl. The new funding may lead to the rebirth of our urban forests.
Or, it may not. What recently happened in one small city provides a cautionary tale.
Our city takes great pride in our urban forest. Parts of the city are shaded by towering giants planted over a hundred years ago. But our UFMP (Urban Forest Management Plan) was 20 years old and the major provisions were never implemented. The Tree Commission was replaced with an Advisory Board. Our canopy fell into decline.
In June 2021 the city released a draft proposal for a new UFMP. The city partnered with ArborPro, a company relatively new to urban forestry consulting.1 The new UFMP was accepted by City Council in September.
The original draft of the plan called for $2.6 million for pruning and removal, and zero dollars for planting new trees. After three months of sometimes contentious debate the final plan still calls for $2.6 million for pruning and removal. In a concession the city reluctantly agreed to allocate 12% of that amount for planting, but only “if circumstances warrant.” The plan was an early Christmas gift for the tree service companies.2
Buried in all the fanfare for the new round of funding are signals that tree service companies across the country are expecting their share (or more) of the largesse. The cities and NGO’s that are about to be gifted millions of dollars for reforestation must resist the temptation to contract out the “tree maintenance”. The first priority for every dollar spent must be to put trees in the ground. Success is dependent upon the cities ably administering their urban forestry plans, and for fostering community involvement by providing a host of volunteers to get the job done.
After our experience, we would not be surprised if, instead of growing the canopy, the money is used to shrink the canopy. It happened here.
- ArborPro’s other revenue stream is Utility Vegetation Management Services in their home state. In this capacity ArborPro serves as a contractor for clearing vegetation from under power lines. ArborPro seems a peculiar choice for a city wanting to preserve their legacy trees and grow their canopy.
- ArborPro Urban Forest Management Plan, September 2021
Billions in Tree Funds Could Help Cities Prep for Climate Change; Alex Brown, Pew Charitable Trust, December 3, 2021
Trees: The Critical Infrastructure Low-Income Neighborhoods Lack; Alex Brown, Pew Charitable Trust, July 6, 2021
To build up urban forests, WA cities could get help from the state; Crosscut, January 26, 2021