Cedar Rapids fundraising to 'ReLeaf' after derecho destroyed tree canopy

City, Trees Forever will team up to raise millions to plant new trees

A stand of trees shows heavy canopy loss Aug. 21 on the northeast side of Cedar Rapids. Besides doing heavy damage to th
A stand of trees shows heavy canopy loss Aug. 21 on the northeast side of Cedar Rapids. Besides doing heavy damage to the city’s tree canopy, the Aug. 10 derecho left thousands without power and displaced many whose homes were damaged or destroyed. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — No mountains mark the city’s horizon. The Cedar River cuts through town, but the nearest ocean is hundreds of miles away. At least Cedar Rapids residents could take solace in the city’s lush tree canopy — until the derecho’s ferocious winds ravaged Iowa nearly a month ago.

With 65 percent of the city’s tree canopy destroyed in the Aug. 10 storm, the city announced Tuesday it is launching the “ReLeaf Initiative,” a multimillion-dollar, 10- to 15-year effort to replenish the downed and damaged trees.

The city will collaborate with the local environmental not-for-profit group Trees Forever.

Shannon Ramsay, the founding president and chief executive officer of Trees Forever, said the organization’s fundraising goal “is evolving all the time.” She anticipates the target being set around $10 to $15 million, which she hopes to be able to reap in over the next six months.

The organization has raised about $25,000 so far primarily from individual contributions, Ramsay said. She noted the not-for-profit has only just begun fundraising and is putting together a leadership team to spearhead the effort.

“We need help and we hope people will come forward to help,” Ramsay said.

TaxAct, a Cedar Rapids-based tax software company, previously announced it would pledge $100,000 toward tree replanting.

City Manager Jeff Pomeranz said the city, which already allocates $150,000 a year to street trees, will dedicate “well over a million” in funds annually to the initiative, pending City Council approval. It will encourage private fundraising contributions and also seek grant and nonprofit opportunities to support the commitment.

“As we continue to recover from the impact of the derecho, certainly the individuals whose homes have been lost or damaged, individuals who were left hungry, individuals who had significant damage throughout the community to their homes or their businesses — those are really top of mind,” Pomeranz said. “But as we continue to recover, so is the tree canopy of Cedar Rapids that has been something beautiful and important to our city’s past, current times and, we know, future.”


Asked about balancing other expensive, long-term city funding priorities like building the flood control system with replenishing the tree canopy, Pomeranz told The Gazette it will be challenging — “but reality is I don’t think we have a choice.”

The city will have to find other efficiencies and does not intend to cut funding to other areas of the budget, he said.

“We’re a Tree City USA and we’re going to have to act like it,” he said. “ ... The commitment has to be doing something big, not business as usual.”

The council in one of its next meetings will take up a memorandum of understanding with Trees Forever outlining responsibilities for city government, the community and the Trees Forever team through this effort, he said.

Jeff Speck, an international expert on city planning, will provide guidance to the Trees Forever team, Pomeranz said. Speck first landed on the city’s radar when Trees Forever brought him to Cedar Rapids to speak in 2012.

Speck promotes walkable cities as essential — cities with infrastructure that slows traffic in downtowns and neighborhoods, and allows pedestrians and bicyclists to travel with ease. City officials have incorporated many of Speck’s ideas into Cedar Rapids’ comprehensive plan, called Envision CR.

Trees Forever also will collaborate with a local landscape architecture firm on the initiative.

“We think that, again, leveraging the expertise of Trees Forever, leveraging the expertise of a local landscape architecture firm and Mr. Speck’s long reach, as well as experience with the city of Cedar Rapids, will really benefit us all as we enter into this 10- to 15-year effort,” Pomeranz said.

All neighborhoods were deeply affected and will be included as the city plans and replants, he said.

Through the initiative, the city will replace street trees along parkways and replant trees in parks and golf courses. The private investment will create incentives and cost discounts for homeowners to plant trees on their properties.


“We have to be one of the communities that says trees are vital to our city and we need to make a very positive commitment to getting these trees replanted,” Pomeranz told The Gazette. “It’s going to take years to see the benefit, but we’ve got to start now.”

There’s a history of lower-income neighborhoods having fewer trees, Ramsay said, so the Trees Forever team wants to be sure the plan addresses equity.

“No neighborhood was spared, that’s for sure, and we want to be sure there’s equity and fairness,” she said.

Trees Forever will help other communities in Linn County and through the whole path of the derecho, Ramsay said, as some donations are coming in from outside of Cedar Rapids.

About a month out from the damaging storm, this step marks the beginning of Cedar Rapids’ long-term tree replanting efforts. City crews and the Iowa Department of Transportation are still working to clear tree debris from Cedar Rapids streets.

The council on Tuesday approved $9.7 million in contracts with companies that will help clear the fallen trees, limbs and branches.

This includes $8.5 million with Wisconsin-based Jamey Flannery Trucking for debris collection and disposal; $500,000 with DebrisTech to monitor for Federal Emergency Management Agency tree debris and storm damage debris removal; and $350,000 each for Brandenburg Drainage and Timberline Clearing to grind trees.

Mayor Brad Hart said the city will seek to be reimbursed for the costs through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.


“We hope that and expect that we will recover those costs from FEMA, but because the city has such a strong financial position, we don’t have to wait for that,” Hart said. “We are moving forward to take these actions right now and will then work hard to make sure we get reimbursed in the future.”

Comments: (319) 398-8494;

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.