Seedlings of hope: Locals try to replenish the Forest City’s trees

After decades of decline, many government agencies and nonprofits are trying to replenish the Forest City’s trees, especially in the barest neighborhoods, and especially this month, when the 150th anniversary of Arbor Day falls on Friday.

Armond Budish, Andrea Johnson, Delores Gray, Joy Johnson, and Jill Koski helping to plant the first tree in East 39th Street Garden. Photo by Holden Forests & Gardens.

On a cold, rainy morning, Missy Callahan was spreading mulch around a scrawny seedling in Slavic Village.

“This one small tree is going to provide such benefits,” said Callahan, a volunteer with the Western Reserve Land Conservancy. “It doesn’t reverse the damage that’s been done with deforestation. But it’s a source of hope.”

Callahan and other volunteers were mulching and tending year-old seedlings at the Morgana Bluffs Nature Preserve, a four-acre haven opened in 2018 on the site of the nation’s first known fish hatchery, later a coal plant. The preserve stands outside Mound STEM School and a Boys & Girls Club. Volunteer Kurt Gildenmeister said, “It really inspires these kids and gives them a different environment.”

After decades of decline, many government agencies and nonprofits are trying to replenish the Forest City’s trees, especially in the barest neighborhoods, and especially this month, when the 150th anniversary of Arbor Day falls on Friday.

Holden Forest and Gardens’ year-old People for Trees program is aiming for 15,000 new trees by 2025. The Cleveland Tree Coalition planted or gave away about 21,000 trees in the past six years. The Western Reserve Land Conservancy raises trees in Cleveland, sometimes gives them away there, and plants many there, including some going up Friday in the Buckeye neighborhood. Local groups also give out help and instructions to residents planting trees.

But it’ll take a daunting 28,400 new trees per year to meet the coalition’s goals of boosting Cleveland’s tree cover from 17.9% in 2017 to 30% by 2040. It’ll also take a daunting amount of green as in money.

The coalition has gotten a grant to hire a director and a $1.5 million earmark from U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown. But Elizabeth Grace, a conservancy fund-raiser and coalition chair,  said the latter group will need about $10 million per year to meet its goal for 2040.

Jessica Miller shows the preschoolers where to put the mulch on the new trees at Heritage View Homes. Photo by Bob Perkoski.

Brown plans soon to introduce the Climate Resiliency and Urban Tree Equity Act of 2022. It would start a like-named fund with $100 million in fiscal year 2023, $200 million in 2024, $400 million in 2025, $600 million in 2026, and $700 million in 2027. The federal agriculture department would award funds, especially to poor or bare neighborhoods.

Trees help minds, bodies, property values, communities, and environments in a remarkable range of ways. Jennifer Kipp, Cleveland’s municipal forester, thinks that the city’s estimated 120,000 tree lawn trees are good investments. “They’re the only asset that appreciates over time,” she said.

Urban trees have been thinned by development, disease, and climate change. According to the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission, the county’s canopy fell from 37% in 2011 to 34.7% in 2017, a loss of 6,600 acres. Cleveland’s fell from 18.8% to 17.9%, a net loss of about 400 acres. The city is less than half as treed as Pittsburgh or Cincinnati.

Blossoms shade and beautify city streets. Photo by Grant Segall.

Not surprisingly, Cleveland’s barest areas are downtown, with 4.1%, and the industrial valley, with 5.5%. Elsewhere trees, like many other valuable commodities, are distributed very unequally.

The coalition’s Cleveland Tree Plan says, “Historically in Cleveland, areas with lower income and/or higher proportions of Black residents and residents of color have generally had lower tree canopy cover due to disinvestment.” Goodrich-Kirtland Park has just 7.6% and Central 12.1%, far less than Kamm’s 30.6% and Euclid-Green’s 35.5%.

Neighborhoods short of trees are missing a lot. According to a study for the Journal of Forestry, the nation’s trees annually contribute $18.3 billion in value by absorbing pollution and shading neighborhoods, thereby mitigating a little of the harm of climate change.

In the summertime, some bare urban areas can be several degrees hotter than shadier suburbs. But a study by Illinois’s Morton Arboretum says that trees can cool the former by nine degrees.

Climate change also combines with development to boost floodwaters. But a typical mature tree can soak up at least 1,000 gallons per year.

What’s more, according to the Morton study, trees raise IQs. They fight depression, asthma, bronchitis, obesity, and diabetes. They cut crime, slow speeders, protect pavement, shelter many species, and feed them. They draw shoppers, bring neighbors together, and boost satisfaction with life.

Elizabeth Grace, the Western Reserve’s urban fundraising director and the Tree Coalition’s interim director, said, “They reduce the level of fear. They calm. When there are more trees, folks are more likely to be outside and active.”

A Moses Cleaveland tree, estimated to predate the city’s founding in 1796, towers over Kamm’s Corners. Photo by Grant Segall.

Pupils are often scolded for looking out windows. But glancing at trees outside helps them concentrate inside. Such glances also help hospital patients recover.

And did we mention that trees are plain lovely? Lovely to see, to smell, to touch, to hear when they rustle, to taste when they bear nuts and fruits.

“Every Ohio child should be able to know the joy of climbing a tree or sitting in the shade of a tree with a good book,” said Senator Brown said Wednesday in a telephone press conference about his bill.

Jill Koski, head of Holden Forests and Gardens, said recently, “Trees are a powerful symbol of endurance and altruism no matter how much the world around them changes. Throughout their long lives, trees give back to us in so many ways without asking for anything in return.” Then again, in their youth, they appreciate a little water, mulch and trimming.

Starting in 2019, Cleveland began spending $1 million over 10 years to plant and protect trees. Residents can apply for free trees for their tree lawns, though they might have to wait more than a year.  If a street lacks tree lawns or suitable surroundings, the city may plant trees at nearby parks and playgrounds instead.

In 2020, Council members Brian Kazy and Kerry McCormack introduced a bill to restore the advisory Cleveland Tree Commission, scrapped in 1992. McCormick says the previous administration balked at the bill. Now the councilmen are working with new officials, tweaking the terms, and hoping to reintroduce it soon.

What’s more, McCormack is seeking extra funds for trees. He also wants utility projects to be reviewed by the forestry department to minimize damage. And he’d like Cleveland to follow other cities in using more flexible sidewalk material to let roots grow.

Western Reserve Land Conservancy has planted trees at the Garden of 11 Angels on Imperial Avenue in Mt. Pleasant. Photo by Grant Segall.

Cuyahoga County is helping too. In the third of an expected five years, its Healthy Tree Canopy Grant Program  recently awarded $950,000 for 27 projects by local governments and nonprofits to plant more than 3,400 trees.

Holden’s People for Trees campaign has gotten pledges from more than 1,000 landowners for more than 4,000 trees. Holden has also helped agencies such as the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority and MidTown Cleveland plant another 1,500.

The Cleveland Tree Coalition recently got a $1.5 million earmark from U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown. It also got a grant to hire its first paid director. It hopes to raise another $8 million over the next 10 years.

Old Brooklyn Community Development Corp. gives out free trees and guidance each year to neighborhood residents, who can sign up at

Among other local efforts, urban tree nurseries are being created at Rid-All Farms in Kinsman and the Stearns Homestead in Parma.

Spring and fall are good times to plant in Cleveland. Arborists recommend mostly native trees but also others better suited for our changing climate and urban challenges, such as hard soil, harder pavement, utility lines, and road salt. Recommended species range from Japanese zelkova to American hornbeam to freeman maple.

Holden will celebrate Arbor Day Friday with free admission at its two locations: the Cleveland Botanical Garden, 11030 East Blvd., open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Holden Arboretum, 9550 Sperry Rd., Kirtland, open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It will also give out free seedlings until 4 p.m. at each site while supplies last.

On Saturday, May 7, Holden will stock another giveaway from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Home Repair Resource Center, 2520 Noble Road, Cleveland Heights.

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