After years of cutting down more trees than it planted, Buffalo is set to receive a federal grant with the potential to reverse years of deforestation and bring tree-lined streets back to the city’s East Side.
“I see good things,” said Paul Maurer, chairman of Re-Tree WNY. “This is big, in terms of the impact … I hope we can make a really good dent, because as I drive or walk the streets, especially the city of Buffalo, we see a lot of need out there.”
Buffalo was awarded $8 million from the federal Inflation Reduction Act fund, based on a competitive application submitted by Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown’s administration to the U.S Department of Agriculture.
Investigative Post previously revealed disparities in the city’s tree canopy. Urban deforestation is most severe in parts of the East Side, where many streets are barren of trees, often leading to heat islands and higher rates of asthma and other respiratory diseases.
The City of Buffalo removes trees that are dead, infested, or an immediate hazard. Between 2016 and 2020, the city cut down more than 4,300 trees.
The Fillmore and Masten districts on the East Side suffer the greatest from lack of trees. There are more than 17,000 tree vacancy locations in those districts, according to Buffalo’s Bureau of Forestry.
As recently as May, the city’s annual budget revealed plans to cut down 1,000 trees and plant 300 – speeding up the deforestation.
Because of the federal funds, Fillmore District Common Council Member Mitch Nowakowski believes that trend will now be reversed.
“We really needed these federal dollars for trees,” Nowakowski said. “The federal funding was a game-changer and a life-saver.”
But Nowakowski and others expressed concern that the money be spent according to need, rather than divided equally throughout the city. The focus should be in neighborhoods with the fewest trees, not those that already have robust street canopies, they said.
University at Buffalo professor Henry Taylor agreed. Taylor has studied the effects the lack of trees can have on urban communities, particularly minority populations.
“The East Side doesn’t have a green infrastructure,” he said. “You really have to be serious about understanding the challenges that we face.”
“If the dollars are spent in a wise and prudent way, and they’re focused on understanding the differences and the challenges faced in different parts of the city, then I think you can have a very, very positive outcome,” Taylor said. “But without really understanding what is needed and what is required, then I think it’ll be like a lot of other things — opportunities lost.”
Nowakowski, who showed interest in tapping into the Inflation Reduction Act for tree funding a year ago, said he hopes there is a “proper plan,” to use the funds equitably.
“Let’s face it, Broadway-Fillmore and Fillmore District is the most demolished district of all nine,” Nowakowski said. “So, if we’re talking about equity and fairness, the Fillmore District is ground zero.”
In a press release issued after the grant announcement, Brown said the city’s program will increase the tree canopy and expand green infrastructure.
A spokesman for Brown did not respond to a request for comment.
According to a description of grant award projects, Buffalo is seeking an “equitable urban tree canopy for all residents to benefit from the social, health and environmental impacts of trees. The program will increase tree planting and maintenance efforts, and focused education and community outreach exclusively within disadvantaged communities.”
The county government was also awarded $5.2 million to “increase tree canopy in disadvantaged communities in Erie County by developing a county-wide climate equity community forest management plan.”
Nationwide, the U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded more than $1 billion for urban forests. Buffalo’s award is the fourth largest in New York.
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In June, U.S. Congressman Brian Higgins wrote a letter to Randy Moore, Chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, advocating for Buffalo’s application.
“It is said that the urban landscape has the power to hurt or to heal,” Higgins said in a statement released Thursday. “This award represents a healing opportunity for Buffalo and Erie County, one that reignites Olmsted’s vision for a community filled with tree-lined parkways and public spaces,” he said, referencing landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.