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Spring is edging our way. Remember leaves? Give it a while longer, and our trees will start growing the foliage that gives them so much beauty.

Trees make a city better, but Buffalo has been losing them. It was probably no surprise to longtime Buffalo residents that an environmental lobbying group found the city's care and replacement of trees to be deficient. But it's disheartening that the situation is still getting worse.

Once, rows of stately elms created a green canopy over many Buffalo streets. It was glorious enough to give Buffalo a reputation as the "City of Trees." As leaves pop out this spring on the trees it has left, Buffalo can reflect on why that old title no longer applies.

Some trees were lost when streets were widened to serve cars. Then the elms fell to a blight called Dutch elm disease. Finally, in the early 1970s, City Hall began to reduce its work force, and the Forestry Division, which trimmed trees and looked after their health, became an early target of budget-cutters. From a corps of about 50 workers, the Forestry Division was sliced to a handful.

The predictable consequences showed up recently in a report issued in Albany by Environmental Advocates. The group said Buffalo has 20,000 "tree vacancies," street places where trees ought to be, but aren't. The city forester says the group is being conservative. It's more like 30,000 in his view.

Who's to argue? Every Buffalo resident knows there are lots of places where a well-tended tree would be a welcome addition to the neighborhood.

Environmental Advocates also reported that Buffalo is losing trees at a faster rate than they are being replaced. Played that way, it's a loser's game.

The lobbying group is promoting the idea of the state spending its money to help communities like Buffalo do a better job with trees. It estimates Buffalo would need $2.5 million to plant 20,000 trees and another $750,000 to deal with old and diseased trees that ought to be removed. Environmental Advocates contends that, with a few exceptions, New York's cities are too slow to replace trees. Buffalo is not alone.

The state money would be a welcome development, but all over New York there are people making suggestions on how the state should be spending the vast flow of money coming in from Wall Street this year. Trees are standing in a long line.

Albany should help, but the city should also try to squeeze enough money out of its own budget to head Buffalo back to "city of trees" status. In fact, there were steps in the right direction taken in the 1997-98 budget. The work force assigned to care and placement of trees was increased from four to 10, and a new appropriation of $94,500 for lease-purchase of equipment found its way into the budget. As a result, an operating budget of $308,000 in 1996-97 grew to $522,000 in 1997-98. In addition, the capital budget provides $100,000 for citywide tree removals and plantings.

Even so, the city needs to put a higher priority on the care and planting of trees. The money put toward trees is comparatively tiny in a budget that rolls over the $746 million mark. Besides the beauty and value they bring to neighborhoods, trees absorb air pollutants and storm water. And as they add to the beauty and livability of the city, they increase its attractiveness as a place to live and work.

Buffalo lost a lot when it stopped being the "City of Trees." It should be a community goal to get that title back.

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