116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Within a week of the devastating August 2020 derecho in Cedar Rapids, people in local government started thinking about trees.
There was still an ongoing humanitarian crisis in those early days following the storm, with thousands of people across the region in damaged homes with no electricity. While they were working hard to meet immediate needs, city officials were wise to also take a longer term look at the environmental needs that would rise from the fallen trees.
Trees are not just nice to look at. They are essential to a healthy community.
Before all the damage was even accounted for, local leaders engaged outside help to start discussing what a tree replanting campaign might look like. Thanks to their foresight, the city is now unveiling an aggressive plan to begin restoring the lost tree canopy, less than a year and a half after the historic storm.
The ReLeaf Cedar Rapids campaign is a partnership between the city and the nonprofit Trees Forever. Organizers recently announced details about the plan and a full report is due to be released next month.
The goal is to plant 42,000 trees on public land over the next decade with an estimated price tag of $37 million, which includes purchasing, planting and watering young trees. The city has committed $10 million to the effort over the next decade while local business and philanthropy leaders are spearheading a private fundraising campaign. They also hope to secure state and federal support.
An estimated 669,000 trees — representing 70 percent of Cedar Rapids’ tree canopy — were lost in the 2020 derecho. Cedar Rapids now has an opportunity perhaps no other city has ever had — to replan and replant the local tree canopy with intentionality.
As important as the tree canopy is, it’s grown somewhat haphazardly. Cities are developed piecemeal over time and tree planting preferences and requirements can change from decade to decade. An older neighborhood’s mature trees represent a historical snapshot of what was available and what was valued when the area was built.
As a result, local tree populations are not as durable or robust as they could be. For example, many communities last century over-planted ash trees, which now are threatened by the invasive emerald ash border, a beetle that has killed millions of them. A more diverse stock of trees would be less susceptible to such threats.
What’s more, access to natural infrastructure is not equal across socioeconomic groups. Tree coverage is highly correlated with wealth — neighborhoods with single-family homeowners tend to have a lot of trees and green space while multifamily zones where low-income people live tend to have less.
The ReLeaf Cedar Rapids project was written with those factors in mind. The new paradigm is “right tree, right place, right reason,” with an emphasis on promoting equity and planting trees native to this region.
It’s an impressive plan but it’s not without limits and challenges.
Funding is the big question mark. The city’s commitment covers less than a third of the expected costs. While fundraising organizers are bullish about their prospects, $2.7 million per year might be an implausibly lofty goal. The campaign is expected to draw outside institutional support — like through federal spending bills and carbon credit programs — but the specifics so far are uncertain.
ReLeaf Cedar Rapids is also limited in scope. While we are excited about 42,000 trees being planted in city parks and along city streets, the vast majority of trees lost to the derecho were on private land. Trees Forever offers assistance to guide planting for private property owners but money in the ReLeaf program is directed toward trees in public spaces.
And Cedar Rapids is just one city in a larger area that was impacted by the derecho. Linn County and surrounding cities ought to consider their own plans to bolster replanting.
The reality is that trees are central to a community’s character and environmental resilience. They are among our best tools to sequester and store CO2 and limit the acceleration of climate change. Trees not only exude natural beauty but also provide cover from harsh heat and wind and improve water and air quality. In short, they make us healthier and wealthier.
While much work remains to be done, Cedar Rapids is on its way to restoring one of the community’s most important natural assets — the tree canopy.
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