In its October 2021 report commissioned by the city of Jersey City, Davey Resource Group, a multinational tree care consulting company, recommends that, for the next five years, Jersey City nearly double its spending on trees and, in a departure from the city’s longstanding practice, prioritize all forms of tree maintenance over tree planting.
The report, which is based on a “significant but partial” inventory of the city’s trees conducted from 2018 to 2021, uses economic language to state its case.
“Supporting and funding the proactive maintenance of the public tree resource is a sound long-term investment that will reduce tree management costs over time,” Davey said.
Davey analyzed three aspects of Jersey City’s tree canopy and noted several bright spots.
Of approximately 13,000 trees inventoried, 83 percent are in “fair” or better condition. The age distribution of the city’s trees is “starting to trend toward ideal.” And in 2020, 24 percent of the city’s tree budget was effectively reimbursed by the trees by virtue of the many environmental benefits that trees provide, according to the report.
But the report revealed real threats to the city’s tree canopy. Forty-eight percent of the city’s trees are in only “fair” condition, and 17 percent are “fair/poor.”
Most startling to some advocates is the divergence between Jersey City’s forestry budget — and the priorities it reflects — and those Davey recommends.
From 2015 to 2020, the city spent an average of $361,000 per year (exclusive of salaries) on trees and had no budget line specifically for tree maintenance, according to information obtained via an OPRA (Open Public Records Act) request.
Davey advises the city spend $800,000 (on average) annually for the next five years, most of which should be allocated toward maintenance, not planting.
“Planting new trees is important for increasing population size and urban canopy but cannot wait until higher priority maintenance is complete or at least in progress,” the report reads.
So relatively unimportant does Davey consider planting for the immediate protection of the city’s tree canopy that in a graphic that shows how the city should prioritize nine different forestry management activities, the planting of new trees is dead last.
Even for the layperson, it isn’t hard to find evidence of poor tree maintenance. On just one block Downtown at Christopher Columbus Drive and Barrow Street, six trees are being “strangled” by metal grates specifically banned by Jersey City’s own 2018 Forestry Standards.
While Davey’s recommendations represent a seismic shift in priorities for the city, they should not come as news to City Hall.
In 2010 the city designated only two activities as “high priority” in its Community Forestry Management Plan: pruning and updating the city’s shade tree inventory; and the city’s 2015 CFMP further deemed regular, systematic pruning (ideally every tree every ten years) “one of the four highest priority tasks” (though writing candidly, the report’s authors then went on to characterize this goal, which Davey describes as the bare minimum a pruning cycle the city should implement, as “not achievable”).
But forestry has been a continuing problem area for Jersey City. The Jersey City Times reported on the 2018 culling of 84 mature London Plane trees from the West Side neighborhood of Society Hill. During the period between 2014 to 2019 Jersey City planted 212 trees per year on average as opposed to the 700–1,000 recommended by the 2015 plan, and when taking tree removals into account, lost 104 trees on average during this time period.
It is precisely this disconnect between the city’s words and its deeds that led Ryan Metz, a former forester for Jersey City, to resign in 2018.
“It was very clear to me that Jersey City had no political will whatsoever to implement any kind of forestry program,” Metz told the Jersey City Times in 2020 in an interview on the city’s shrinking tree canopy.
More recently, a tree planting program on Central Avenue was botched.
Whether or not the will has increased to implement a forestry program, including the city’s hiring at least two foresters, is open to debate. On the one hand, the city’s Shade Tree Committee will soon issue revised Forestry Standards that expand upon definitions in the manual, update tree selection criteria and clarify tree planting protocols.
On the other hand, left largely untouched in this process will be the section dealing with maintenance, which currently sets forth care standards for a tree’s first two years after planting but says nothing about what these standards should be—nor who has responsibility for them—after a tree turns two.
In this context, in January the committee’s chairwoman, Councilwoman Mira Prinz-Arey, penned a letter on behalf of the committee to the mayor and her colleagues on the council recommending the city “allocate a yearly tree maintenance budget” and “fully fund and staff the forestry department”—among five other things at this “critical point” in the city’s stewardship of its tree canopy.