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TREE FUND SOUGHT TO SPRUCE UP CITY

Buffalo's trees, which do everything from reduce air pollution to boost property values, are continuing to decline at disturbing levels, a statewide lobbying group reported Monday.

Pressing for more state funds to plant new trees and maintain old ones in cities across the state, Environmental Advocates said there are at least 20,000 so-called tree "vacancies" on Buffalo's streets. It is a number even the city's own forester acknowledges is extremely conservative.

Moreover, the group said that each year the city is losing 600 trees but is only adding 300 new ones -- hardly fitting, critics say, for a place that once boasted to be the "City of Trees."

"Buffalo is one of the cities with tremendous needs," Loretta Simon, one of the coordinators of the survey, said of the city's dwindling tree count. Her group is a leading environmental lobbying organization in Albany.

The group called for creation of a $5 million state fund to help cities begin the process of maintaining trees, cutting down the dead and diseased and planting new ones.

"It's a call to action," Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, who appeared with the group at a Capitol news conference, said of the findings.

Looking back to the 1960s, when Buffalo had nearly 50 employees in its forestry department overseeing the planting of 7,000 trees a year, Ms. Simon said, "The city just did it better in the past." Buffalo's forestry unit today has a staff of 10, just barely bigger than the city of Ithaca, which has a population one-tenth the size of Buffalo.

The group's analysis found no dissent from the city's forester. "It's bad. It's definitely bad," Peter Pasnik said of Buffalo's tree situation.

He said his staff, which only has one aerial lift truck to handle a city with nearly 200,000 trees, has all it can do just to keep trees and limbs from becoming a public safety threat. There is no time or money to do some of the basic maintenance work the environmental group said is desperately needed if the city is to hang on to its aging tree population.

Pasnik also said the group's estimate that there are 20,000 tree "vacancies" is low. He said there are actually about 30,000 spots along city streets needing a tree.

Pasnik said his office still has not recovered from budget cutbacks that began in the early 1970s. Since then, he said, "routine maintenance has pretty much been abandoned."

The Masiello administration did give him three new employees last year and money to buy two new trucks.

Pasnik said his agency would welcome any state money the environmental lobbying group in Albany could get. But he warned the city's tree problem will take years to fix and can't be done by an ill-equipped force of homeowner volunteers. "It's going to take a lot of money to attack it and hit it hard," said Pasnik, who has been the city's forester since 1996.

Environmental Advocates said it will cost $2.5 million to plant 20,000 trees in Buffalo. Meanwhile, it said another 1,600 trees are either dead or seriously diseased enough to require removal. That would cost another $750,000.

The group said Buffalo and the state's other cities, with a couple of exceptions such as Ithaca, have failed to act quickly enough to replace aging and damaged trees. In Buffalo, the group said, there is a five-year waiting list for residents who want the city to plant trees in their neighborhood.

But cities across the state have cut back on their forestry units in response to budget cuts from Albany over the years. The environmental group, however, said a federal study done on the effects of Chicago's trees pointed to the need for the state to now set aside funding specially targeted for replenishing the state's "urban forests." The report said 6,100 tons of air pollutants are absorbed by Chicago's trees and that, properly placed, trees can help reduce a home's energy bills by 5 to 10 percent. Other benefits include reduced storm water runoff, higher property values and, of course, better looking neighborhoods.

"We are here to issue a call for help," Ms. Simon said.

In large part, Buffalo has never fully recovered from the loss of about 100,000 American Elm trees after an outbreak of Dutch Elm disease that began in the 1950s.

The eroding tree population is certainly not unique to Buffalo, Environmental Advocates reported Monday. It said it would cost more than $20 million to fill the tree vacancies and remove dead trees in the 10 cities it surveyed, not including New York City's massive arbor needs.

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