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Re-Tree WNY owes success to grass roots

Paul Maurer remembers when the idea hit, in the middle of a sleepless night the Saturday after the October Surprise storm. He did what he sometimes does when his brain is racing. He grabbed a yellow notepad and wrote down the thoughts careening inside his skull.

That was two years ago, almost to the day. Two years, more than 1,000 volunteers, about $600,000 and nearly 8,100 new trees ago.

We gripe about a communal legacy of bad decisions and delays. This shows how much we can do in a little time.

Mighty oaks grow from tiny acorns. Monumental movements spring from late-night jottings on a notepad.

I do not know where people such as Paul Maurer come from. I am just glad he is here.

Aided by a half-dozen equal partners, Maurer inspired a communal army. His late-night musings morphed into the phenomenon known as Re-Tree WNY. Concept: What nature destroyed, man will remedy. It was Maurer's idea to replace tens of thousands of trees mortally wounded in the freak early fall snowstorm with new plantings.

There was a simple beauty to it. It tapped into people's desire to do something. It provided a goal for a hurting community's good intentions.

Anybody could have thought of it. But only somebody such as Maurer could have lifted it off the notepad. His day job is putting different kinds of people in the same room for a common cause. Granted, the cause usually is commerce. Maurer is sales manager for Citadel Broadcasting, which includes 97 Rock. But he figured he could use the same sales methods to a different end.

"It's satisfying," he said, "to do more than make advertising dollars."

He gathered about 40 community-minded folks -- bureaucrats to block club leaders, elected officials to environmentalists -- and laid the Re-Tree idea on them.

"A lot of people were skeptical. It was a big undertaking," Maurer said. "But out of that [meeting] came our core group."

Maurer looks like the grown-up version of the kid you played stickball with. His blond hair is barely longer than a brush cut, his blue eyes carry the boyish enthusiasm of Opening Day. He grew up here, left for college, came back -- and hopes that his two kids can do the same.

We were sitting on a shirtsleeve Monday on Buffalo's East Side, across from New Miracle Baptist Church. Sticklike saplings line the curbsides near the church, a standing army of new oaks and elms, each barely taller than a doorway. They were among a spring planting of 2,100 trees. About 2,600 more go in next month. The goal is 30,000 new trees in five years.

"I hope," Maurer said, "that someday my kids will tell their kids, 'Grandpa helped put those trees in.' "

I think that the arbor-vasion is great. It is even better that the seed of re-treeing grew from a grass-roots movement. Time and again, from saving history at Erie Canal Harbor to repopulating downtown, the drive was led by enlightened folks who took things into their own hands. Power to the people.

"I remember looking at the damage and thinking, 'I don't think this is something that government can [solve],' " Maurer said.

Maurer and environmentalist David Colligan led the way. Others signed on -- from Girl Scouts to grandmothers, corporate heads to college kids, mayors to town supervisors. Volunteers planted trees; towns matched what volunteers did; businesses donated money.

The legacy of it will last beyond all of our lives.

Some folks say we cannot get anything done, or done right, around here. There are nearly 8,100 trees that argue otherwise.


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