Ohio’s Cuyahoga Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) is in the early stages of work on a Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) project that would expand tree planting and landowner education on larger properties. It’s part of a broader effort by the district, with help from government entities, to increase tree canopy in urban areas.
“If we can utilize this money to encourage people to plant trees because of the benefits of planting and growing trees, I think it can be done in many, many places,” Cuyahoga SWCD Director Janine Rybka said. “The devil is in the details, and that’s where we’ve got to get down to the root of how can we really get this growing, not just the trees, but the program.”
The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) awarded the district $78,000 in 2018 for the three-year Greater Cleveland Reforestation Project. The RCPP project dovetails nicely with Cuyahoga SWCD’s goals, the City of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County’s urban forestry goals.
Last year, Cuyahoga SWCD planted about 500 trees, Rybka said. The district hosts tree planting events and educates landowners on proper ways to plant trees, best practices for mulching, the correct type of tree to plant for the specific urban location, and future care for the trees.
“We’re the boots on the ground,” Rybka said. “The typical urban tree has a life expectancy of six to seven years, so it isn’t just about planting the tree, it is about growing trees. Our message is focused on long-term tree stewardship.”
The district’s urban forestry effort has grown over the course of a decade. In 2016, when awarded an urban agriculture grant from NACD, the district used the grant to hire someone part-time for urban agriculture programs. Connections were made with people who owned high tunnels, riparian tree plantings were done, and the district partnered with community development corporations about projects on vacant lots.
The Sustainable Cleveland 2019 plan identified restoring the urban tree canopy as one of its goals. A 2012-2013 tree canopy assessment noted the canopy at 19 percent and falling, in part due to diseases, pests like emerald ash borer, and the lack of replacing lost trees. In addition, the American Lung Association rated Cleveland as the ninth-worst metropolitan area for air quality. The Cleveland Tree Coalition was established to help combat further loss.
“One of the things identified early on was the need for trees and green environment,” Rybka said. “In an urban environment, there’s a multitude of benefits trees provide – slowing down water, keeping streams cleaner and cooler by reducing erosion, providing habitat, helping with air quality, and increasing property values.”
Earlier this year, the Cuyahoga County Executive announced a $5 million commitment over the next five years to increase the canopy to 30 percent. This fall, Cleveland Mayor Frank G. Jackson announced an additional $10 million for the city’s Urban Forestry Program. This district is providing technical assistance for these initiatives.
Communication with communities within the county has led to greater public involvement, educational programming and working on various conservation programs. Educating, planting and monitoring how trees are planted has been a great way to engage the public, Rybka said.
“There’s a lot of territory to cover,” she said. “We have excellent participation in our tree-related programs, and with the RCPP funding, we have the ability to reach out to larger landowners to help grow the urban forest. I’m convinced we can develop a program that will serve as a model to bring more NRCS funds for use in urban areas.”