The perks of planting trees (And the challenge of finding places for them)

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Editor's note: This article was modified on Aug. 15, 2017, to update the neighborhoods the program is running in. They are the West Side and Morningside neighborhoods. 

PITTSFIELD — More trees in Pittsfield will bring down energy costs, but the program tasked with planting them is having trouble taking root.

A statewide program to increase tree cover in urban neighborhoods — which decreases both wind speed and peak high temperatures — is currently underway in the city. The neighborhoods targeted for planting in the Gateway Cities program lack tree cover and are largely low-income, and residents of those areas can benefit the most from reduced energy costs, said Kurt Gaertner, director of land policy at the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

The state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs aims to have 2,400 trees planted in the city of Pittsfield over a three-year period — by the spring of 2019.

But as many trees as there are to plant, the Berkshire Environmental Action Team is having a difficult time finding homeowners who could use them.

There's a high number of renters in target neighborhoods — they don't have direct authority to allow the state to plant, said Jane Winn, executive director of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team.

Volunteers needed

The program is also suffering from a lack of outreach volunteers.

"It's hard to sustain volunteers going door-to-door in 80-degree weather," she said.

When the state previously directed the group to enlist volunteers to help water already-planted trees at housing complexes like Columbia Arms, Wahconah Heights and Providence Court, the group had many volunteers.

About 60 people had volunteered per month to help water the trees, but the group hasn't had more than 11 outreach volunteers per month.

"And most of those were just coming once or twice," Winn said.

The Berkshire Environmental Action Team is implementing the state's program on the ground, providing outreach to local homeowners about the benefits of having trees on their properties — which the state would pay to plant.

The Greening the Gateway Cities program plants trees in low tree-cover neighborhoods of Gateway Cities — midsize urban centers that anchor regional economies.

Planting numbers vary by season — the fall of 2016 was unique due to the drought, said Peter Lorenz, director of communications and public affairs at the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

The group has also encountered challenges with the planting area defined by the state.

"Our boundaries are set, and we cannot go outside our boundaries, even though there are people right outside our boundaries that would like trees," Winn said.

The group plans to meet with the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs to request a change in the boundaries of the outreach area, she said.

"I don't feel like the lines of communication on this have been the best," she said. "I've never felt like everything was nice and clearly defined, except we're trying to get 2,400 trees in the ground, and watered enough so they clearly take."

The initial planting season in Pittsfield was the spring of 2016. Planting takes place in the spring and fall, which avoids planting during the hottest part of the year, Winn said.

Probably about 75 to 80 percent of the people the group reached have expressed interest, but many people don't have room on their properties for more trees, Winn said.

The area targeted for planting by the state is concentrated in the West Side and Morningside neighborhoods.

Volunteers have been to almost every home in the target area, along with some businesses, Winn said.

Benefits from trees

But even small cost benefits of the program won't emerge for at least 10 years.

"This is definitely a long-term investment," Gaertner said. But the benefits will be substantial, he said.

Gaertner pointed out how reduced tree cover affected the city of Worcester, which experienced an infestation in 2008 of the invasive asian longhorned beetle. The asian longhorned beetle attacks hardwood trees.

The infestation led to the removal of thousands of trees, which resulted in a significant rise in energy use.

Besides potential cost benefits, trees in urban areas have been shown to reduce air pollution, contribute to increased property values and reduce the amount of storm water runoff into city streets, according to an evaluation of the pilot Greening the Gateway Cities program released by Worcester Polytechnic Institute last October.

The largest source of funding for the program comes through the state Department of Energy Resources. Smaller sums come from the state capital and operating budget.

Greening the Gateway Cities was initiated in 2014 by former Gov. Deval Patrick. The program initially encompassed Chelsea, Fall River and Holyoke.

Pittsfield was added in 2016, along with Brockton, Haverhill, Lawrence, Lynn, Leominster, New Bedford and Quincy.

Reach staff writer Patricia LeBoeuf at 413-496-6247 or @BE_pleboeuf


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