It was 2017, and Jersey City Forester Ryan Metz had had enough. After only nine months on the job he tendered his resignation, frustrated by the city’s underfunded and dysfunctional forestry program. In an explosive four page resignation memo obtained by the Jersey City Times, Metz catalogued myriad problems and detailed his ideas for addressing them.
“At this time, Jersey City does not appear to be taking seriously its obligations or responsibilities to its citizens in providing or properly maintaining effective green infrastucture,” wrote Metz.
“The current state of the urban forest in Jersey city is alarming. The trees of this city have been planted in places they do not belong with little thought to their future growth or purpose. They have been neglected, removed on a whim, and improperly maintained for decades.”
Five years and three city foresters later, little has changed according to several city employees who did not wish to give their names for fear of retaliation. They have neither the workers nor equipment to properly care for the city’s trees, they say. And in 2022, according to one worker, for the first time the city went through the fall season without planting any new trees.
Said one, “Right now, there is only one team of seven workers assigned to tree maintenance. To get the job done, we need three teams.”
In addition, say workers, the city needs to spend more on the equipment needed to attend to the pruning of healthy trees and the removal of dead branches and trees.
Metz had said as much in his memo six years before. “The city relies on a group of about seven men to handle the maintenance of every city tree in the Jersey City … no less than 12 full time employees, trained, and fully equipped is needed to maintain the urban forest in any kind of meaningful or impactful way,” he wrote. City workers, said Metz, were “using outdated equipment that is simply not up to the task.”
That Jersey City’s trees are in dire condition is not news. A 2020 study found that the city’s “canopy cover” had shrunk 6.1% since 2015 and stood at a paltry 10.9%, less than half the average for urban areas. By way of comparison, in 2017, New York City had a tree canopy cover of 22 percent. A new study of the tree canopy will be conducted this year.
However, given Jersey City’s apparent reluctance to fund forestry, a consultant has recommended that it give priority to maintenance of existing trees.
Jersey City’s new forester, Mike DiCiancia, said “I agree that maintenance is number one; risk mitigation is the most important thing we’re going to be doing.”
And in a 2020 report to the Department of Environmental Protection in Trenton, Jersey City admitted that its entire forestry workforce was “minimally staffed” and said that “larger staffing is needed to proactively manage our shade tree canopy instead of the current reactive program.”
Even if the city were to prioritize hiring additional workers for tree maintenance, it isn’t clear that the city would be able to attract and hold onto them. Said one worker, “You can’t pay someone $20 an hour and expect them to do this kind of work. You need training, and you have to be willing to work outside in the cold. It’s also dangerous.”
In his memo, Metz said as much. “New members are often moved in from the parks personnel, and most do not stay in forestry for very long.” Metz suggested that new hires with experience should be paid about $45,000 per year. “Anything less than that will not be competitive enough to attract competent workers.” He noted that New York City was offering $65,000 with benefits. In 2023, salary requirements would, no doubt, be higher.
Insufficient equipment continues to hamstring Jersey City’s forestry workers. Among the equipment needed are wood-chippers, grinders for removing stumps, and bucket trucks that lift workers into the crown of a tree to perform pruning. Currently, there is only equipment sufficient for one seven-man team. Workers also point out that right now the city also lacks the manpower to put two men on the grinder simultaneously, a number they say needed to reduce the danger to the operator.
In a 2020 conversation with the Times, Metz explained his reason for resigning. “It was very clear to me that Jersey City had no political will whatsoever to implement any kind of forestry program.”
Mayor Fulop’s spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
Despite his limited resources, several workers as well as local park and sustainability advocates have given Mike DiCiancia’s early efforts high marks.
That residents perceive a need to increase the tree canopy was illustrated during last year’s “participatory budgeting” process which gave residents an opportunity to propose ideas for neighborhood improvements. In four of six wards, residents asked that the lion’s share of their allotments, totaling $170 thousand, go to street trees.
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.
However, the current tree budget taken together with the amounts requested in the participatory budgeting process will come nowhere near what’s required. To “rebuild the canopy the city once had” said Metz, the city would need to budget $1.5 million annually.
Planting trees isn’t just a matter of aesthetics. According to The New York Times, poor urban neighborhoods “can be 5 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit hotter in summer than wealthier, whiter parts of the same city” because of a lack of trees and an excess of heat trapping concrete. Thus, trees can also be a force for social justice.
Trees also slow climate change. Indeed, $4 million worth of carbon is captured by Jersey City’s trees every year. According to a study published in the magazine Science, “The restoration of trees remains among the most effective strategies for climate change mitigation.”
Some help may be on the way. In a recent Zoom call, The Trust for Public Land told local groups working on sustainability and green infrastructure about $15 billion available for infrastructure and environmental projects. Included in that is $1.5 billion for tree canopy enhancement and maintenance and $3 billion for parks, trails, and bike and pedestrian paths. Activists are hoping that Jersey City will prepare grant proposals.