After the decades-long deforestation of Buffalo, public and private interests are planting the seeds of a green revival that could restore the lost beauty of the cityscape, where neighborhoods once were shaded by graceful elms and other giant trees arching over the streets.
Consider Delaware Park, where volunteers are completing a tree survey to lay the groundwork for as many as 800 plantings starting next spring. Martin Luther King Jr. Park will get about 550 new trees and Front Park about 450.
"We hope to plant 2,001 trees by 2001," said Deborah Ann Trimble, executive director of the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, which set out under a 1998 Lila Wallace-Readers Digest Fund matching grant to restore the city's six Frederick Law Olmsted parks and connecting green ways to their original splendor.
The fresh Delaware Park plantings follow last year's placement of dozens of new trees around the park ring road by the Green Fund.
Disease, neglect and damage have long since robbed the city of the lush, green canopy that was once one of its most charming assets. Sadly, the withering-away continued over the last decade as 500 to 1,000 trees were lost yearly out of a total tree population of 150,000.
The new coalition includes, among others, the City of Buffalo and its reborn forestry division, the Buffalo Green Fund and its Reforest Buffalo committee, the Olmsted Conservancy, Ecology and Environment Inc. and SBK Environmental Research. The benefits of their cooperative effort are evident.
There is more good news on city streets, where the corner appears to have been turned in the effort to plant new trees at a faster rate than old ones are removed.
This year, for the first time in memory, the city tree population registered a net gain, said David J. Colligan, a lawyer and tree lover.
Last spring, Colligan and other volunteers planted 143
trees along Fillmore and Jewett avenues, which he sees as a potential green way replacing Humboldt Parkway, the Olmsted-designed median that linked Delaware and Martin Luther King Jr. parks before it was dug up to accommodate the Kensington Expressway. Those were among 743 trees planted between July 1998 and this past July under the city reforestation program.
Near the Ogden Street toll barrier, where the northbound Niagara Thruway enters the city, Schictel's Nursery, in partnership with the state Thruway Authority, planted 87 flowering crab apple trees at its own expense. Thus, for at least a few weeks each year, an otherwise bleak stretch of interstate highway will become a colorful gateway to Buffalo.
After rebuilding programs on Bailey Avenue and on the Delaware Avenue S-curve, the state Department of Transportation replaced about 500 trees that were removed.
For once, the gains more than made up for the losses -- about 900 street trees between the summers of 1998 and 1999.
"We're finally seeing positive numbers," Colligan said.
It will be some time before a city tree population that once totaled about 300,000 can be brought back to a level even approaching that figure.
Because the urban environment is hard on trees -- their lifespan is 20 years in residential neighborhoods; just seven years downtown -- the city in the long run probably can achieve only 80 percent reforestation. "That's the optimum. It's considered full reforestation for an urban street tree plan," Colligan noted.
He sees "the opportunity to put in another 150,000 trees" in streets that are now only 50 percent forested.
How long will it take?
"A realistic target would be 2010," Colligan said.
"Right now we're trying to build momentum. The problem is, there is a backlog of trees that need to be removed, so it will look like we're treading water for a while."
The deficit is a legacy of former Mayor James D. Griffin, who effectively dismantled the Parks Department's forestry operation during the 1980s. It was restored by the Masiello administration. During that period the number of dead trees awaiting removal ballooned into the thousands.
The ongoing problem boiled over again Wednesday at a Common Council hearing, where Council President James W. Pitts and other members demanded that emergency funds set aside by the Council be used to take down trees constituents have complained about before other trees are removed.
Although his division now has a dozen employees and a $530,000 budget, those figures don't measure up to the task, says city Forester Peter Pasnik.
"It really would take $2.2 million a year just to keep afloat -- take care of the necessary tree removals and pruning," he said. "We need outside grants and a yearly commitment from the city to staff the department."
Meanwhile, the Olmsted Conservancy, under the $700,000 Lila Wallace-Readers Digest grant and matching funds raised locally, aims to replenish the Olmsted parks and parkways within three years, following as closely as possible the designs laid out 124 years ago by America's premier landscape designer.
Once Delaware, Front and Martin Luther King Jr. parks are completed, the focus will shift to Cazenovia, South Park and Riverside parks and the estimated 20 miles of Olmsted green ways in between.
The problem is, most of Olmsted's original plans were lost. The conservancy has turned to Erie County Historical Society and Parks Department archives -- primarily pictorial sources -- in an effort to conjure up Olmsted's vision.
"His concept of trees on green ways was as important as species and placement. He wanted to create a certain effect on every parkway," Colligan observed.
Key to the reforestation of city parks and streets is a database being developed at Ecology and Environment. It eventually will yield computerized pictures of every tree, identifying it by type, location and condition. "We need the database for long-range planning," Colligan said. "E&E brings a lot of technical knowledge to the process because they understand the software capability."
In addition to serving as a road map for reforestation, the computer program will be continuously updated to show which existing trees need to be trimmed and which replaced, Trimble added.
"An inventory like this allows us to see needs of an individual tree in relation to every other tree and do the most good with the least amount of money. It gets us away from crisis management," said Bruce Robinson, a Jamestown forester who is working as a consultant to the Olmsted Conservancy.