Inflation Reduction Act includes massive investment in urban forests. What will it mean for Rochester?

President Biden signs Inflation Reduction Act into law to address climate and health care

The legislation signed by President Biden aims to address climate change, lower prescription drug costs and provide health care subsidies. Anthony Jackson, USA TODAY

The $739 billion Inflation Reduction Act signed into law this month includes $1.5 billion for urban forestry, a massive investment intended to make cities more green and more resilient to increasing heat due to climate change.

That money, part of a suite of climate justice-related provisions in the legislation, has drawn attention within the city of Rochester, which is currently at work revamping its urban forestry master plan.

The $1.5 billion over 10 years for the U.S. Forest Service's Urban and Community Forestry program is more than five times the current level of funding ― and it likely will be augmented through other block grants in the bill, including $2.8 billion for the Environmental Protection Agency's Environmental and Climate Justice program and $1.9 billion for the Dept. of Transportation's Neighborhood Access and Equity program.

American Forests, a tree-focused non-profit, estimated the dedicated urban forestry money would enable the planting and preservation of 23 million trees in American cities.

"Not only will those trees reduce health risks from heat, but they will also provide huge household energy savings," American Forests President Jad Daley wrote in a blog post. "More trees will lead to more savings and cleaner air, too, thanks to the way urban trees absorb and deflect air pollution."

All kinds of traffic, both pedestrian and vehicular, move along under the lush tree canopy along Mt. Hope Avenue in Rochester Friday, Oct. 15, 2021. Shawn Dowd, Democrat And Chronicle

All kinds of traffic, both pedestrian and vehicular, move along under the lush tree canopy along Mt. Hope Avenue in Rochester Friday, Oct. 15, 2021. Shawn Dowd, Democrat And Chronicle

In Rochester, the difference in canopy cover ― the amount of an area covered by trees, as seen from above ― differs by more than 30 percentage points from the most tree-covered neighborhood to the least. That has important consequences for air temperature, physical and mental health and property values, among other things.

‘I now see the disparity is real':For Rochester’s mayor, trees are a justice issue

Steve Harris, the arborist for the city of Syracuse and president of the New York State Urban Forestry Council, called the new investment "a historic level of funding for urban forestry, without a doubt."

The money could be used not simply for planting additional trees, he said, but for improving the maintenance regimen for existing ones. Rochester has a seven-year pruning rotation, but Syracuse and many other cities do not.

"My hope would be that we think broadly about not just planting trees but increasing our bandwidth to manage our urban forests," Harris said.

Rochester's trees are celebrated, but not everyone gets to have their time in the shade

Rochester plan still being finalized

The city of Rochester has pledged to address that disparity through targeted planting in northeast Rochester and other relatively treeless neighborhoods. Those details are supposed to be spelled out in the forthcoming forestry plan.

"We need marching orders as a city as far as what we have to plant and how we have to do it, and the budget and work plan next year better match it," City Council member Mitch Gruber said. "If the Inflation Reduction Act is the best place to get money for tree planting, then we need to target our efforts to get those dollars, and I have all confidence this administration will do that."

The city will seek to use that money toward its goal of increasing the public tree inventory to 70,000 by the end of 2025, which is when Mayor Malik Evans' term expires. That would mean a net increase of about 6,000 in four years.

In the last four-year period, from 2018 to 2021, the city planted 2,335 new trees but removed 2,771, a net loss of 436.

By comparison, the city of Syracuse proposed planting 3,600 additional trees in three years, using $2 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds.

"The plan is very ambitious but needed to create an equitable distribution of the critical benefits that trees provide," Rochester Commissioner of Environmental Services Rich Perrin said in a statement. "We are grateful that our federal partners have recognized the need for additional federal funding for trees in urban areas."

City residents can request to have a tree planted near their home (whether they rent or own) by calling 311.

Sign up here for the Democrat and Chronicle Urban Tree Canopy text messaging group.

[This story was originally published by Democrat & Chronicle.]

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