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The massive federal measure offers a five-fold increase in funding tree planting nationwide, especially in low-income communities that are typically hotter in summers.
With a recent study predicting that more of the nation will be suffering through 100-degree days 30 years from now, the Biden administration is giving a major boost to cities trying to deal with the extreme heat ahead by planting more trees and creating more shade.
Included in the Inflation Reduction Act President Biden signed into law last week are $1.5 billion in grants the federal government will be sending to states, local governments and nonprofits over the next decade to plant trees.
Working out to an average of $150 million a year, Biden’s climate, health-care and taxes measure will mean a five-fold increase for the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Urban and Community Forestry Program over the $32 million the program is receiving this fiscal year.
However, Republicans are mocking spending so much on trees.
“Don’t we have enough trees around here?” Herschel Walker, a Georgia Republican U.S. Senate candidate said on the campaign trail last week, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Republicans, who unanimously voted against the Inflation Reduction Act, also pointed to the tree funding during the debate over the bill. In particular, Republicans have raised concerns that the measure, which will be paid for in part by raising the minimum tax on large corporations, could worsen inflation.
“Their so-called Inflation Reduction Act is chock-full of Green New Deal spending. Things like $1.5 billion – billion – for a grant program to plant trees,” said Sen. John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota, during the debate on the Senate floor before it was approved with Democrats’ unanimous support.
Thune also criticized the law for creating $1.9 billion in neighborhood access and equity grants for a wide range of purposes including improving walkability, safety and affordable transportation in communities and to identify gaps in tree coverage.
A Growing Trend
The money, though, will come as some states and localities have been planting more trees to respond to climate change, particularly in the minority neighborhoods that tend to be more bare than in other areas.
Phoenix is planting trees where many pedestrians, including students, walk to create 10 tree-lined “Cool Corridors” by the end of the year. The city is hoping to plant 20,000 trees to have 100 shady corridors by 2030.
In Boise, Idaho, the city has planted more than 14,000 trees toward its goal of adding 100,000 by 2030. Its City of Trees Challenge wants one tree for every household and one seedling for every person in the city.
In Florida, Miami-Dade County is planting 300,000 trees, and is trying to rally cities, schools, corporations and others to plant 700,000 more to reach a goal of adding 1 million trees.
Despite the criticism, the increase in federal funding is drawing applause from local officials like Boise City Council President Elaine Clegg, who said in an interview it could accelerate what the city is trying to do.
The funding was also praised by Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego. “This transformational package will accelerate our efforts to achieve tree equity in every neighborhood by 2030, bolstering resilience to extreme heat and reducing energy bills for Phoenix families,” she said in a statement to Route Fifty.
The funding is “transformative” for the 44-year-old USDA Urban Community and Forestry Program, said Joel Pannell. vice president of urban policy for American Forests, an advocacy group that wants to increase trees nationally, in an interview.
The program, since its creation in 1978, has been able to help fund the creation of state plans. But it has had a limited amount of funding to plant trees and care for them, said Pannell, whose group also works with localties and groups to plant trees.
“This will allow it to do a lot more on the ground,” Pannell said.
“It’s going to give the program a real shot in the arm,” agreed Keith Wood, who staffs the National Association of State Foresters’ urban and community forestry committee, in an interview.
While $1.8 billion may seem exorbitant, Mark Buscaino, executive director of Casey Trees, said communities will get a few million dollars once the money is spread around. However, that could encourage more localities that do not have the resources to plant as many trees to do more, he said in an interview. The group along with Washington’s transportation department plants about 10,000 to 15,000 trees a year in order to try to cover 40% of the city with tree canopies, up from 35% now.
Clegg, who championed Boise’s effort, defended the federal spending on trees. The city has spent $80,000 thus far on the project, she said. Boise’s residents are embracing the effort, she said, with the city seeing three times more people volunteering to help plant trees than anticipated.
“If you look at the value of trees, what we’ve spent is pennies on the dollars for what we’re getting,” said Clegg, who said she developed a love of trees as a child from “having a reading spot six feet off the ground.”
Among trees’ benefits, Wood said, is dealing with rising temperatures. “Urban heat islands are real,” Wood said.
Not only do trees provide cover from the sun, they cool the air by releasing water from their leaves or evapotranspiration, he said.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, shaded surfaces can be 20- to 45-degrees cooler than unshaded areas, and evapotranspiration can help reduce peak summer temperatures by 2 to 9 degrees.
That’s become more critical as temperatures rise. A study by the First Street Foundation released last week found that over the next 30 years the number of counties expected to reach a heat index of 125 degrees at least once a year will jump from 50 in 2023 to 1,023 in 2053. The number of people in the U.S. facing extreme heat would rise from 8.1 million to 107.6 million.
In addition, Wood said, because trees can absorb stormwater, it keeps sewage systems from overflowing and polluting waterways.
And because leaves can catch particulate matter, they also keep the air cleaner, he said.
“Trees are the best air filters and air conditioners,” Pannell said. He added that keeping temperatures cooler would also save money for those living in the areas because they would not have to run air conditioning as much.
Not a Partisan Issue
Whether or not planting trees is a good thing is not a partisan issue, Pannell said, noting that there have been bipartisan bills introduced to increase the number of trees. The difference, though, is that the Inflation Reduction Act will spend hundreds of millions more than Republicans have been willing to support.
The Trillion Trees Act, a 2020 bill sponsored by Sens. Mike Braun, a Republican from Indiana, and Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat, would have provided $10 million for a USDA program that supports providing seeds and saplings for planting.
Meanwhile, the 2021 Urban Forests Act proposed by Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, a New York Republican, would have spent $50 million over five years for the creation, enhancement and upkeep of urban forests.
In addition to the environmental benefits, Clegg argued that trees bring “social and emotional benefits” to those living in urban areas.
“You have birds in the trees. In a concrete jungle, it’s good to have a bit of nature,” she said.
‘Will Save Lives’
A particular focus for cities is to undo the stark inequities in which some neighborhoods are heavily shaded and others are exposed to sweltering heat.
An American Forests study last year found that neighborhoods where the majority of residents are people of color have a third less tree canopy coverage than in other communities.
In addition, neighborhoods where the majority of people are living in poverty have 25% less tree canopy compared to other areas.
“There are life and death consequences,” Pannell said. “The people who are affected by the lack of trees are also those who have the worst health care and are unable to afford to run their air conditioners all day,” said Pannell, whose group created a tree equity scorecard for 150,000 neighborhoods in 486 urban municipalities around the country.
In Washington, D.C., for instance, Anacostia is a lower-income neighborhood where 58% of residents live in poverty. Only 12% of the area is covered by tree canopies, according to the group.
In wealthier Georgetown, where only 18% live in poverty, 52% of the area is shaded by trees.
The city, however, has been making progress, said Brenda Richardson, a community activist in the Anacostia area, who has among other things organized a memory tree program funded in part by the Casey Trees, in which people are given trees to plant in memory of relatives killed by gun violence.
One family, she recalled, celebrated the birthday of a deceased loved one by tying balloons to their tree on his birthday.
Richardson said an aerial photograph she saw five years ago showed much of the city covered by green. But “there was a hole” where her community is, she said.
Some parts of the city “are engulfed by shade,” she said. “[Anacostia is] getting to that.”
Everett Lott, director of Washington, D.C.’s transportation department, which runs the city’s tree program, noted in a statement that most requests the department gets for trees come from areas away from low-income neighborhoods. But the city has been emphasizing putting more trees in areas like Anacostia the past five years.
The department “ is very excited for the opportunities this increased funding will provide us,” he said of the additional federal funding.
Lora Martens, Phoenix’s Urban Tree Program manager, also expressed excitement noting in a statement to Route Fifty, that her community “is the hottest large city in the United States.
“Our goal is to significantly increase tree canopy citywide,” Martens said. In addition to creating the “Cool Corridors,” she said the city will be focusing on neighborhoods with few trees and where people stand in the sun, like bus stops.
The federal funding “will significantly help us improve on-the-ground conditions for our most vulnerable Phoenicians, by funding tree plantings, and other related programs, in the neighborhoods that need them the most,” she said.
“This federal investment in green infrastructure will save lives in the city of Phoenix and around the country,” she said.
Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty.
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