Cedar Rapids is looking to bring back the city’s tree canopy ‘in the right way’

Cedar Rapids in the aftermath of the Aug. 10 derecho. — Jason Smith/Little Village

Officials involved with efforts to restore the tree canopy in Cedar Rapids hope a reforestation plan will serve as a “greenprint to maintain momentum” as tree replanting continues throughout the next decade.

The Cedar Rapids City Council approved a memorandum of understanding with Trees Forever last Tuesday, authorizing the local nonprofit to create a reforestation plan as part of ReLeaf Cedar Rapids. The city will be contributing $500,000 through Dec. 31.

The Aug. 10, 2020 derecho destroyed about 65 percent of the city’s tree canopy. Six months after the derecho, city crews in Cedar Rapids continue to collect tree debris. Almost 3.3 million cubic yards of debris have been removed from the right of way, Parks and Recreation Director Scott Hock said. Tree removal is expected to continue into the spring.

“The size and the impact of the storm, as we all know, was unprecedented,” Hock told the council during its Feb. 9 meeting. “To come back from something that was this devastating, we need a strong plan with a good vision to help us address the losses. Trees Forever can help us fulfill that.”

Aftermath of the Aug. 10 derecho in Cedar Rapids. — Steve Shriver

ReLeaf Cedar Rapids is a multimillion-dollar, 10-to-15-year effort to replant trees throughout Cedar Rapids. The city has committed to contributing at least $1 million per year to the project aimed at planting public trees and assisting residents with replacing trees on private properties, according to the city’s website.

Trees Forever is a nonprofit organization based in Marion that aims to assist communities with caring for the environment through planting and caring for trees. Trees Forever has worked with more than 700 volunteers to plant and care for more than 3 million trees and shrubs in Iowa and Illinois, according to the organization’s website.

Trees Forever will partner with city planner and urban designer Jeff Speck and landscape architecture firm Confluence. Speck had previously worked with the city in 2015 to promote Envision CR, a comprehensive plan providing a vision for the future of the city.

Trees Forever Founding President and CEO Shannon Ramsey told councilmembers the reforestation plan will include 38 park designs, as well as plans for each neighborhood.

Hock said the plan will focus on six key principles to bring back the city’s tree canopy “in the right way.”

• Diversity in the plantings

• Native varieties of trees

• Resilience

• Equity

• Beauty and character

• Public education, input and participation

Hock said they want to avoid past mistakes of planting trees that are susceptible to disease — such as elm trees and ash trees — and instead plant native trees that are are well-suited to local conditions.

Ramsey said tree equity will focus on how to prioritize neighborhoods and how to plant fairly.

“Trees are essential to our quality of life,” Ramsey told Little Village. “They clean the air we breathe. They prevent stormwater runoff. They are a part of the big food web for animals and pollinators, and they can make us feel better. We want everyone to have access to nature. … Neighborhoods really need trees to be livable.”

The plan will rely heavily on public input, community engagement and volunteers, Ramsey said. There will be input sessions, virtual meetings, polling and questionnaires.

Ramsey said the goal is to have the plan finished by October but mentioned that individuals shouldn’t wait until the plan is completed to start replanting.

In fact, Trees Forever started replanting trees last fall through their tree adoption program. The program gave residents the opportunity to purchase landscape-quality trees to plant on their property and provided technical assistance to those who needed it.

“We had a total of 1,600 trees that we got out last fall,” Ramsey told Little Village. “We just felt like it was a good thing to encourage people that we need a little moral boost to get out and plant, so we did a lot of tree adoption and had great sponsors for that.”

Trees Forever hopes to continue tree adoption this spring and fall, Green Iowa AmeriCorps member Gina Errico told Little Village.

Replanting will “take an army of volunteers,” Ramsey said.

“I just want to remind us all that we are not just replanting,” Ramsey told the council. “We are growing. We are establishing trees. It’s going to require a lot of care and watering.”

Councilmember Scott Overland echoed Ramsey’s comments and said the long-term success of the plan is going to be dependent on maintenance, which will be “critical” for success in the long run.

The city’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2022, which begins on July 1, 2021, includes $24,000 for water of new trees, City Manager Jeff Pomeranz said during the council’s budget work session last week.

“One of the silver linings in this … this will be an opportunity for neighbors to work together to be outside and work together to replant in their neighborhoods,” Mayor Brad Hart said. “I think that’s going to be a really bright spot as part of this entire effort.”

Izabela Zaluska contributed reporting to this article.

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