In what has become an annual ritual, on Monday at the monthly meeting of the Shade Tree Committee, Jersey City’s new forester, Mike DiCiancia, acknowledged that the city’s top priority for trees should be pruning and removals, not planting, something the city has failed to budget for adequately (or even specifically) for fifteen years.
In a 2020 report to the Department of Environmental Protection in Trenton, the city characterized its entire forestry workforce as “minimally staffed” and said that “larger staffing is needed to proactively manage our shade tree canopy instead of the current reactive program.”
Last fall, consultants from Davey declared what they believe to be top priorities for Jersey City’s tree canopy management. In a list of nine items, the planting of new trees came in dead last. The planting of replacement trees came in eighth. (Tops was everything else relating to maintenance: removals, inspections, and regular pruning.)
Referring to Davey’s recommendation, DiCiancia said, “I agree that maintenance is number one; risk mitigation is the most important thing we’re going to be doing.”
DiCiancia, who came to Jersey City following a four year stint at the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, has a bachelor’s degree in ecology, evolution and natural resources from Rutgers University-New Brunswick.
Whether the city will pony up the money to maintain its tree resource remains to be seen. As The Jersey City Times reported in December 2020, the city’s tree canopy has shrunk precipitously. As of early 2020, it stood at only 10.9%. New York City, in contrast, has a tree canopy of 22%.
Davey determined the city should roughly double its overall forestry budget to an average of $800,000 annually for the next five years. Not only has the city never dedicated so much funding to its (literal) green infrastructure, it does not disclose how the money it does allocate to forestry gets divvied up.
But that may soon change.
“Now that it’s its own division, it’ll be easier to break out line items,” said committee chair Ward B Councilwoman Mira-Prinz Arey, referring to the fact that in April Forestry became a division unto itself separate from Parks. Prior to the restructuring, she said, it was difficult to figure out what activities were being funded from which budgets because some forestry-related funding was coming from the Department of Public Works, some was coming from the Office of Sustainability (now a department), and some was coming from contracts that vendors had with DPW, all of which themselves were grouped together in one budget line.
But whether the city will heed Davey’s advice on the budget amount is another matter. When asked if the City Council has ever discussed setting aside funds for even just tree planting (considered a far easier sell than tree maintenance), Prinz-Arey said, “We’ve tried, but part of the challenge we’ve had is the fact that we’re now on our third forester (in three years).”
The abandonment by the Jersey City Parks Coalition of its grand plan for the city to plant 5,000 trees between 2015 and 2020 was due to this frequent change of personnel, Prinz-Arey mentioned.
“But another piece … is that you can have a plan put in place to plant all these trees, but if the maintenance piece isn’t there, the concern is that you’re throwing good money after bad, so … yes, we’re having conversations about it, but it’s been a little challenging because the direction shifts every once in a while as it relates to the priorities of whomever the forester was at the time,” she said.
Prinz-Arey told the committee the city could obtain outside money to plant trees since it plans to apply to the federal government’s $500 million Healthy Streets Program enacted last November (assuming Congress appropriates the program’s authorized funding levels to any meaningful degree).
DiCancia expects to learn more about the city’s overall budget for Forestry next month. Meanwhile, he hasn’t lost any time whittling down the backlog of work that had accumulated since the city was without a forester for an entire year. When he began the job in August, DiCiania inherited a list of 800 outstanding tree-inspection requests. That list is now down to 180, he reported.