Plan for 100K new trees defunct

July 23, 2010
By

John Ruch

City street tree number slashed; coalition disbanded

Mayor Thomas Menino’s plan to plant 100,000 new trees in Boston by 2020 has been largely dormant—at least as a collective effort—since 2008, the Gazette has learned, even though Menino and the City of Boston continue to tout the program.

And while new city street trees were supposed to be part of that plan, the Menino administration actually has been slashing the amount of city street trees since the 100,000-tree goal was announced in 2007. The result is a net loss of 1,300 city street trees, according to the city budget.

Other organizations originally involved in the 100,000-tree plan, known as Grow Boston Greener (GBG), continue to plant new trees. But only 5,703 trees have been officially counted as planted under GBG, according to James Hunt III, the city’s environmental policy chief—a pace that would take 53 years to plant 100,000 trees.

In Gazette phone interviews, Hunt blamed the economic crisis for hampering GBG, and hesitated when asked whether the City remains committed to planting 100,000 trees by 2020.

“It’s a goal,” Hunt said. “So I would say yes. I’m not ready to give up on that goal.”

That’s a far cry from Menino’s re-election campaign platform last fall, which called GBG a “plan” that is part of a “substantial portfolio of environmental programming.” The city’s web site (CityofBoston.gov) and other city officials continue to tout the GBG effort as an active plan with no hint of problems—including Hunt, who cited it at a Franklin Park meeting last week about the Asian longhorned beetle infestation.

In fact, the coalition of private organizations and government agencies that ran GBG is defunct, the Gazette has learned. The official GBG web site (www.growbostongreener.org) was last updated in 2008, and its “Planting Programs” page is dead. Various coalition organizations, including Arnold Arboretum and the state Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), told the Gazette that they have heard nothing from GBG in at least a year.

“I think the hundred thousand trees is kind of off the plate,” said Christine Poff, executive director of the Franklin Park Coalition, one of the coalition members in the GBG effort.

Tree-plantings continue in Boston. The city still has a GBG fund of $150,000 to $200,000 and makes small tree-planting grants, Hunt said. But, he added, there is no comprehensive effort to count how many trees are being planted or where. It appears GBG was set up to take credit for any tree someone plants in Boston—the web site includes a self-reporting form—while also currently lacking anyone to do the counting.

The specific goal of GBG was not only to increase the number of trees—which is already an impressive 500,000 in the city of Boston—but also to do so in inner-city neighborhoods that have relatively less tree coverage. It is unclear whether the 5,700 new trees are furthering that goal.

Certainly, that number is nowhere near the 7,700 new trees per year that GBG would need to plant to reach 100,000 by 2020. Hunt said that the GBG official tree count is probably an undercount, but also acknowledged that the GBG pace is off.

“Has progress slowed in Grow Boston Greener [and has that] kept us from achieving the pace? Yes. No doubt about that,” Hunt said.

“When we announced the goal of 100,000 trees, we expected to be ramping up at this phase and having a continual progression of tree-plantings,” Hunt said, noting that is not happening.

GBG was focused on trees planted on private property or city public housing developments, because trees survive best there. Most of the funding was supposed to be private as well. But city street trees were part of the package.

Part of “the deal was, the city would ramp up its funding for street tree[s],” Hunt said.

In fact, the city has been cutting street tree funding, resulting in a net loss of street trees almost every year since, according to Parks Department spokesperson Mary Hines. Hundreds of new street trees are planted every year, but even more have been removed.

The amount of city street trees has dropped from about 35,000 in 2007 to about 33,700 this year. The tree count will drop by another 100 in the current fiscal year, according to an estimate in the city budget.

This year, the city is scheduled to plant 525 street trees and remove 500—the first time plantings have outpaced removals since 2007, and still not enough to overcome the large net loss since then.

“Our funding has decreased for [street] trees,” Hines said in a Gazette interview, adding that she could not explain why that funding was cut. “It is what it is. Everything’s been cut.”

The Mayor’s Press Office did not respond to Gazette questions for this article.

Confirming the net loss of city street trees, Hunt said that the “harsh realities” of the economy have harmed both city and non-profit organization efforts to plant trees. He also noted that an urban forest survey that inspired GBG found many dead street trees, so the high removal rates in recent years could reflect a backlog of work that could drop off in the future.

Hines said it is possible that private groups or developers have planted sidewalk trees as well, but she did not have any figures on such trees.

Street trees only include trees on public sidewalks and similar areas. Tree-plantings in parks are budgeted separately, and officials could not provide specific numbers for those plantings to the Gazette.

The 100,000-tree goal appears to have been misunderstood and frequently misrepresented even by the city itself as creating a 20 percent increase in Boston’s tree count. But the actual goal was to increase Boston’s tree canopy—the area shaded by trees—by 6 percent (from 29 percent to 35 percent). That would only take about 31,000 trees, the Gazette has calculated. It appears that GBG’s actual goal is a more modest 30,000 net new trees, with two-thirds of the 100,000 either simply adding to the city’s character or replacing dead or injured trees.
Rise and fall of GBG

Menino announced GBG on Arbor Day, 2007 as part of his environmental policy efforts that he likes to call turning “Beantown to Greentown.”

GBG came out of a US Forest Service-funded mapping of the tree cover of various cities. Three other cities, including New York City, also announced canopy increase goals at that time. In a typical Big Apple-sized program, NYC pledged to plant 1 million new trees by 2017, according to a Christian Science Monitor article at the time. The New York parks department did not respond to Gazette questions about the status of that effort.

The GBG program was organized as a collaboration between the City of Boston and the Boston’s Urban Forest Coalition (BUFC), an umbrella group of environmental non-profits. BUFC and GBG were both overseen primarily by the Urban Ecology Institute (UEI), a non-profit organization based at Boston College’s Newton campus.

UEI reportedly has had staff turnover since GBG began, according to Hines and other sources. UEI did not respond to Gazette phone calls and e-mails for this article.

It appears that GBG and BUFC lasted about a year before going dormant, either just before or during the economic crash late that year. The web sites for both GBG and BUFC (including BostonForest.org) have not been updated since 2008.

Classic Communications, a Foxboro-based company, handled public relations and workshop organization for GBG. But the staff person listed as a media contact on GBG’s web site no longer works there, and the company is “no longer involved with Grow Boston Greener,” according to Classic Communications Project Manager Stef Komorowski.

Major local organizations that are BUFC members expressed confusion and doubt about the coalition’s existence and the GBG program in Gazette interviews.

“It has not been very active, the coaltion, for the last year or so, due to the economic downturn,” said DCR spokesperson Wendy Fox. “I think we’re all waiting to proceed on this.”

“I don’t know what’s up,” said Poff, the Franklin Park Coalition head. “We’ve not heard anything recently.”

Arnold Arboretum officials referred questions to the city. “This informal group [the BUFC] has not met in a year or so, if I recall correctly,” said Pamela Thompson, Arnold Arboretum’s manager of adult education and internships, in an e-mail to the Gazette.

Despite such confusion, Menino campaigned on GBG last fall. GBG is still touted on the city Parks Department web page (www.CityofBoston.gov/parks), though the link for a GBG guide is dead.

The city’s “Climate Action” web page touting environmental programs describes GBG as active and claims, “The City of Boston is…[p]lanting more trees to cool the city and absorb carbon dioxide.”

Various BUFC groups are planting new trees, though it is unclear whether they are counted under GBG.

On Arbor Day this year, UEI held a ceremony at the local Dimock Community Health Center to announce grants to 13 groups that will plant 126 trees at 18 sites around the city. UEI used the “Grow Boston Greener” name for the announcement.

DCR planted 168 trees in Boston parks this spring. The Franklin Park Coalition planted about 250 trees and shrubs last year, though the exact number of trees in that mix is unclear.

The City of Boston provides tree-planting grants to community organizations under the “Grow Boston Greener” name, budgeting about $25,000 to $50,000 for that out of GBG’s existing, privately-raised funds, according to Hunt. He said some new tree-planting grants will be announced soon.

Best of JP 2014