Protecting Rochester’s urban forest

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The trees of Rochester saved it from total destruction—210 years ago to the day. While things have changed, the city’s trees can still be an integral part of combating modern-day issues of climate change and environmental justice.

In a story told in the Rochester’s Forestry Division’s Urban Forest Master Plan draft, during the War of 1812, the British fleet anchored at Lake Ontario off the mouth of the Genesee River on May 14, threatening to burn down the tiny village as they had done previously at Buffalo and Lewistown.

Though American reinforcements rushed to the area, they still were vastly undermanned compared to the eight large ships of the British fleet. In a feat of successful trickery, the Americans marched in circles in and out of woods around the area now known as Charlotte.

“Files of men passed visibly a number of times through a clearing,” the plan reads. “The British, not knowing how many troops they faced if they were to land, decided the gains were not worth the battle, and on the third day they sailed to the east. The forest had saved Rochester.”

“These trees are a testament to our commitment to the environment, the health of our city, and a gift to future generations who will sit beneath their shade,” said Mayor Malik Evans at this year’s Arbor Day ceremony. “What we plant today represents a promise we make to dedicate ourselves to celebrating and protecting our urban forest.”

As the draft report states: “Trees filter toxic pollutants from the air and release life-giving oxygen. They intercept rainfall and slow erosion and stormwater runoff. Besides providing shade that cools people, streets and structures, trees demonstrably cool the air itself on hot summer days.”

Savings from properly positioned trees in the urban area can be as high as 25 percent for cooling and heating energy, the report notes.

However, tree coverage is not spread equally in the city. For example, stocking levels, which refers to the number of existing trees as a percentage of available planting sites, are lowest in the Northeast quadrant (66 percent) versus the highest rate in the Southeast quadrant (82 percent).

Last year, the Forestry Division kicked off the Trees Expansion and Beautification Initiative, which devoted $3 million to increasing the city tree inventory from 64,000 to 70,000 and achieving a stocking level of 85 percent across all quadrants.

This is reflected in the planned plantings for both spring and fall this year. The vast majority of new trees will be in disadvantaged census tracts along the city’s Crescent neighborhood.

Of the new trees, the northeast quadrant will be the main beneficiary with 2,699 plantings. The northwest and southwest quadrants will have over 1,200 plantings and the southeast will have 721, according to the draft plan.

The hardiness zone of Rochester means the urban forest can maintain strong diversity, and currently has 173 species with 12 tree genera inventoried. Of those, maples are the largest population at 29 percent, with honeylocust trees (10 percent), oaks (7 percent) and ash (5 percent) making up the other significant types of trees in the city.

According to the draft, editable fruit plantings will be restricted to parks, community gardens and other open spaces. Poor soils, narrow tree lawns, and low branchings that conflict with clearances are all reasons given by the report.

“Fruits such as apples, pears, and cherries become problematic with infrastructure and pose threats to public safety,” the draft also notes.

At a recent City Council meeting, members Michael Patterson and Mary Lupien expressed a desire to see something like urban orchards included in the plan.

“With $3 million for trees, where are the fruit trees, man?” Patterson said. “As a kid in this community, I grew up running around, eating out of trees all over. And brother, I humbly submit to you that, as a kid who grew up during the age of lead gasoline—God only knows what was in that fruit—but it was good and I ain’t dead yet. Our environment is better now than it was then.”

“I still eat all of those berries and as people walk by, they look at me like I’m crazy. But no, you can eat this for real, I tell them,” Lupien added.

“I think that it does create a sense of community, I think there are urban foragers who will take care of it. And we have to be thinking about our community resilience as the climate changes in other areas of the country,” she continued. “I think we can all acknowledge that we will see a population increase and it’s going to put stress on our food systems.”

Wind and ice storms, soils with higher pH, man-made elements, construction, pollution and invasive species, particularly the emerald ash borer, are all other difficulties to be considered, the Forestry Division says.

Next month, following a series of public meetings, the city’s Urban Forest Master Plan will be updated to align with the Rochester 2034 Comprehensive Plan. Today and Thursday will feature in-person events at Rochester International Academy and Ibero-American Action League, respectively, and next week, a virtual meeting will be held.

Also next month, the Forestry Division and the Community Tree Ambassadors will host urban forest walking tours across the four quadrants of the city.

Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer and data journalist. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

4 thoughts on “Protecting Rochester’s urban forest

  1. Kudos to the city for this project! I look forward to listening to one of the upcoming presentations. I’m hoping that most (or all) of the selections are native to the area, as that will ensure the best chance for the trees to survive. Also, and this is perhaps most important, I hope there is no attempt to mulch the new trees in what has become the popular volcano style. From the Univ of Illinois extension:
    1) Leave a two-inch gap between the trunk of the tree and your ring of mulch.

    2) Apply the mulch 2-4 inches deep. You will likely need to make your application up to two inches deeper than your target depth to allow for settling. In other words, applying 4-6 inches of mulch will result in a stable 2-4 inch layer after the mulch has settled.

    3) Make your ring as wide as possible/practical. Ideally, you would mulch all the way out to the dripline of the tree.

  2. While more trees are always a good thing, two major points were left out of the above article. 1) any committment to planting thousands of new trees in the city requires an equal committment to keeping those trees watered and healthy. We’ve all seen numerous instances of where treees were planted, a water bag was slapped on and the tree then forgotten, only to end up dead either from individual drought or from the effect of the chemicals used on streets during the winter. 2) to accurately guage the impact of the existing tree coverage on Rochester and the need for additional plantings, calculations must take into account the coverage on the other side of the city limits. The trees of Irondequoit, Brighton, Greece, etc. are as important to Rochster as theyare to the ‘burbs.

  3. Thank you for this informative article about the urban forest in Rochester, NY. The management of the urban forest indicates Rochester’s investment in the quality of life in the city. A vibrant urban forest creates an ecology which ameliorates so many other social problems which is often not recognized and acknowledged when the topics of social problems are focused on and discussed.

    Kudos to the Rochester Beacon for making us more aware of this great program in the City of Rochester.

  4. I’m fortunate to live in the city in a great neighborhood at the very edge of the Northeast quadrant. We have many trees throughout the neighborhood and room in our tree lawns for various kinds of trees. Our property sits on an acre of land, but many of our trees were devastated by the invasion of beetles and other insects and now need to be taken down. Something we cannot afford to do. It would be great if the city leaders could get the state or federal government to fund removing ravaged trees on private property with grants and replanting trees destroyed by these most likely foreign invaders.
    This assistance to homeowners would ensure appropriate species diversity that would help maintain the total urban forest in the event of another future invasive species onslaught, storm, or the previous disease that took out so many beech trees in our city.
    Perhaps the US Forest Service or Department of Agriculture could provide saplings at a low or no cost to the city for distribution to homeowners and the city.
    Then, the issue of vacant lots may not meet current setbacks or zoning requirements. These could also be used to plant trees as neighborhood respites where curb lawns are insufficient in size for planting trees, like mini-urban pocket parks.
    I’m confident those responsible for our urban forests are also informing the Department of Environmental Services to keep salt on our roads to a minimum or plant salt-tolerant trees on major thoroughfares to reduce winter stress.
    Finally, I’ve had experiences where young people deliberately or ignorantly damage or vandalize young trees on curb lawns. It might be more costly, but funding could be provided to add effective tree guards when planting trees in some urban areas and hold educational programs in all city schools to get young people to care about and protect the urban forests. Although attractive, the idea of fruit-bearing trees in curb lawns isn’t a good idea. Fruit must be picked, sprayed for insects, and carefully looked after. However, it might be feasible as a cooperative undertaking with the County.

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