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WHY NOT BECOME, AGAIN, A CITY OF TREES?

There was a time when Buffalo's neighborhood streets were lined with tall elms gracefully forming splendid archways over their domains. Buffalo could rightly be called the "City of Trees."

It's apparent from photographs that some trees were lost when streets were widened to accommodate automobiles. Then there were huge losses to Dutch elm disease after the 1950s. The blight was a devastating event that caused city officials to use the word "emergency" as its long reach became evident.

But there was more than the elm blight behind the city's slippage as a place of great trees.

There was a city government with budget problems that made its tree agency, the Forestry Division of the Parks Department, an early target for spending cuts.

Beginning in the early 1970s, the Forestry Division, used to trimming trees and looking after their health, began to get trimmed itself. Trees turned out to be on the low end of the priority list. From some 50 workers in the field, the Forestry Division dwindled down to a few. Additionally, the city provided inadequate money for planting new trees to replace ones that died.

Buffalo is still home to about 160,000 trees, but that's many fewer than the 300,000 found here at one time. And fewer of the newly planted trees are the stately shade varieties that once canopied the city's streets.

However, there are stirrings at City Hall that show a better appreciation of what trees mean to urban life. It's a long road back, but the city has taken some steps on the journey.

At the instigation of North Council Member Dale Zuchlewski, last year's capital budget cleared the way for borrowing $300,000 for removal of dead trees and planting of new ones. Unfortunately, the backlog of dead trees makes removal the priority.

Zuchlewski says Council members get numerous calls from constituents troubled by dead trees that are the city's responsibility. For the other half of the equation, the city is looking toward volunteer groups to help out with new plantings.

At Mayor Masiello's recommendation, this year's budget includes a hefty $410,000 for the lease-purchase of an array of tree-related mechanical equipment and a computer system that will help the city keep track of its trees as part of a mapping project that includes data on many municipal responsibilities. Meanwhile, the Common Council added four jobs that will bring the Forestry Division's field strength to nine.

Finally, the Council in May passed what it calls the Urban Forest Protection Act, sponsored by Masten Council Member Byron Brown and inspired by the city's Environmental Management Commission. Its provisions include a requirement that a downed tree be replaced with enough new ones so there is no loss of diameter. The old rule was tree-for-tree. Another rule requires tree plantings in parking lots. A survey of the city's trees is established, too.

Well-kept trees make a city a better place. Sadly, trees held a low priority at City Hall for so long that there is much catching up to do. But Buffalo must try. Perhaps even the beautiful elms could return. There are now, at last, disease-resistant types to plant. And as trees go, elms grow fast.

Imagine if we could return to the glory days.

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