Reporting and Photos By Jean Zimmerman, Region 3 ReLeaf Co-Chair
“Plant trees, more than you can count, mostly natives.” New NYSDEC Lands and Forests Director Fiona Watt’s pithy paraphrase of author Michael Pollan’s “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants” was one highlight of a gathering March 16th, 2023 in Poughkeepsie to honor Tree Cities, Campuses and Lines. There were 69 attendees; I attended in my role as Tree Preservation Board Chair for Hastings-on-Hudson.
The recognition event took place at Vassar College, the first time the NYSDEC meeting has been held in person since 2020, and featured a slate of compelling speakers.
A welcome by NYSDEC’s Urban Forestry Coordinator Gloria Van Duyne was followed by Watt’s presentation, in which she noted that the attendees included people from all different branches of the tree community, including mayors, superintendents of public works, ground managers and community liaisons.
As of the day of the awards ceremony, Van Duyne reported, New York State can claim 164 Tree Cities, a roster that includes veteran White Plains and Scarsdale with 40 years apiece; Norwich, Ogdensburg, Oxford and New Paltz with 30 years each; Cuba at 20 years and New York City in its 27th year as a Tree City. (At 44 years, Poughkeepsie is New York State’s first and most longstanding Tree City USA.) There are also 19 Tree Campuses, including Vassar since 2012. Five companies in New York State have been certified as Tree Line utilities, including Con Edison and PSEG-Long Island.
Karen Emmerich, NYSUFC board member and chair of its grants committee, introduced the Council’s role and programs, including the upcoming ReLeaf Conference to take place on Long Island in summer 2023 with the theme “Keeping Trees in Mind: Planning for a Better Tomorrow.” She also introduced two grants available, including the Quick Start grant intended to help communities become Tree Cities, and the Tree City grant whose purpose is to help them maintain their progress.
Next, Poughkeepsie Mayor Marc Nelson stressed the importance of trees in the city, saying that when he was elected last year he discovered there were 2,000 outstanding work orders for street trees, either for removal, pruning or planting—the maximum number the system allowed. Despite this challenge, the city has dedicated itself to taking care of its urban forest. “You can’t fix what you don’t know you need to fix,” Nelson said, stressing the importance of a tree inventory undertaken in 2019. “It’s all about the data.”
Vassar Professor Emeritus Mark Schlessman followed with a vivid account of the college’s historic Arboretum. He began by asking the audience to imagine the location’s early days, when it was populated by Munsee-Lenape peoples in a rich eastern deciduous forest. By the time Vassar College was founded in the 1860s, the original inhabitants had been forcibly displaced from the land, and all the trees had been razed. From the beginning, college founder Matthew Vassar embarked upon a campaign of re-greening, personally supervising the planting of thousands of trees. (Trees on campus are still planted using Matthew Vassar’s original “golden spade.”)
Established in 1925, the Arboretum has served over time as a means of teaching students, and now has 2,700 mature trees, about a third of which have either been planted or adopted by graduating classes, one of the oldest continuing traditions at the school. An 1870 sugar maple takes the honors as the oldest surviving specimen on campus, and an iconic 1906 London plane known as “the Vassar sycamore” exhibits a branch so long it once held a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. The college also manages an adjacent property, Vassar Farms, until 1957 an active dairy farm that provided butter and milk for campus dining halls, and which now represents an ecological preserve with 74,000 trees and a range of projects including native chestnuts, deer exclosures and restoration plantings.
Next, Natalie Quinn, Development Director for the City of Poughkeepsie, detailed efforts to communicate benefits of trees to the municipality’s disadvantaged communities, citing the importance of allaying concerns about falling leaves and berries that might damage property, as well as fears that increased real estate values after new plantings might result in residents being priced out of their rentals. Poughkeepsie, she said, now encompasses 6,000 trees, and is moving from a reactionary to a proactive stance regarding their care. A “cut we must” campaign – the slogan the creation of a local marketing company – felled 400 ash trees out of necessity, to get ahead of the emerald ash borer infestation, and the city is now “hyper focused on planting.”
Bob Slocum of NYSDEC’s Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health division described invasives including jumping worms that “can move 17 football fields a year,” while his colleague Andrea Nieves updated the audience on the latest research concerning spotted lantern fly and beech leaf disease.
Over lunch, people hailing from different sectors of the tree world shared their perspectives.
Michelle Higgins, Contracts and Grant Administrator at DEC, praised the event, calling it a “great day at Vassar. I always learn more from talking to our communities in person.” The next round of Urban and Community Forestry Grants will become available around Arbor Day. Higgins added, “It’s excellent to see communities returning to Tree City USA and to hear from Mayor Nelson as to the state of Poughkeepsie’s urban forest!”
Larry Ferrandiz, Senior Forester with PSEG-Long Island, a Tree Line Utility since 2014, shared his takeaway: “As in any profession there are best practices. Tree Line encourages those best practices, holds you to them and recognizes you for them. It doesn’t teach us to do our job more effectively, but it teaches us to do our job properly according to the specifications.”
NYSUFC board member Karen Emmerich explained why the post-pandemic return to on-site gatherings like the one at Vassar is important. “Often with in-person discussions, one thing leads to another. It’s like a chain reaction. New ideas evolve in the conversation more easily than on Zoom.”🌳