But it’s been no easy feat:
Every year since 2016, they’ve managed to plant roughly 2,500 trees in Cleveland, but in order to ramp up the city’s tree canopy from 19% coverage to 30% coverage by 2040, there needs to be a combined effort to plant 350,000 more trees in the next 10 years. The city then needs to take stewardship of the maintenance and upkeep of all those trees. If we do nothing, the city is on pace to lose 26% of its current tree canopy by 2040. Furthermore, this problem has rippled across Cleveland’s suburbs, affecting a much larger area than originally expected.
“We anticipated what the loss would be for Cleveland, but the rate of loss in the suburbs was surprising given that they generally have more trees to begin with,” notes Albro.
To help with the effort, Cuyahoga County executive Armond Budish has pledged $1 million a year for the next five years alongside Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, who’s allocated $1 million a year to the city for the next 10 years, to help with remediation efforts in the chief areas of planning, planting and maintenance. But it will take far more effort than throwing money at the cause and planting new trees — for this plan to grow effectively, the public needs to rally around the problem and Cleveland needs to look to surrounding cities as a learning tool to thrive.
“This is about so much more than planting new trees,” says Albro. “If we don’t take stock of what we currently have and make a detailed plan for how to maintain, planting new trees won’t create the change that Cleveland desperately needs.”
It’s why Weslian is here now as a volunteer, checking up on the growth of her work and taking inventory of the trees her and other volunteers have planted so far. With as much investment as what’s being made by the city and other organizations at large, it will take action from people on the ground like Weslian for this plan to pay off.
“It doesn’t sound as sexy to say, ‘We are cataloguing all the trees in our neighborhood,’ ” admits Weslian. “But we can’t make a difference here unless we have a plan, and we really need to make a difference here before all the trees are gone.”
Cleveland’s roots as a forest city run deep, all the way back to its foundation. When Moses Cleaveland arrived in Northeast Ohio, the area that would eventually become Cleveland had 94% tree canopy coverage. With forested wetlands covering an additional almost 5% of the remaining area, Cleveland’s early days featured an almost totaly tree-covered topography, made up of 26 different tree types, largely beeches and oaks. Even more remarkable, all of these species survived and are still present in the city today.
“There has been no local extinction,” says Kathryn Flinn, associate professor of biology at Baldwin Wallace University. “What’s been lost hasn’t been variety. It’s been quantity.”
Before Cleveland was a bustling industrial mecca, the city looked decidedly more like a frontier in the early 1800s. Public Square was dominated by trees and historical reports indicated that it was a prime location to hunt rabbits and squirrels. The first courthouse was a log cabin and trees dominated the downtown landscape.
Cleveland gained the Forest City moniker in the early 1820s after Leonard Case Sr., president of the Cleveland village council, passed an ordinance requiring shade trees along village streets. As canals were built in the 1820s and railroads roared through the country in the 1840s, that commitment to tree-lined streets began to fade.
“The industrialists changed everything,” says Jon Wlasiuk, former environmental historian at Michigan State University. “The environmental consequences were that forest lands were consumed, with much of it burned by farmers to clear the land quickly.”
When John D. Rockefeller came to Cleveland and built his first refinery in 1863, the city quickly became the national heart of the oil business, with devastating consequences for the local flora. The sulfuric acid released into the air by the proliferation of refineries rained down on Cleveland and destroyed the plant tissue it came into contact with.
“In 1891, Cleveland City Council had to call in forest experts to find out why all the shade trees were dying,” Wlasiuk says. “The experts said, ‘It’s pretty simple. Either stop burning this stuff or plant heartier trees.’ ”
But it wasn’t just the trees that were suffering. With air quality on rapid decline, Clevelanders began experiencing adverse health effects and started dropping in the street due to lack of oxygen.
“They set aside a ward in the city hospital where those people that were suffering from air pollution could go,” says Wlasiuk.
It would be more than 70 years before Cleveland skies cleared up with the closing of coal-based plants, the shipping of refineries overseas and an increase in technologies that filtered out pollutants. But the toll of industrialization, development and suburbanization — along with trees’ old age, an assortment of diseases and violent storms brought on by climate change — all played part in the decline to 19% tree canopy by 2019.
Along the way, the city tried numerous times to lay down roots for replanting
Between 1919 and 1924, more than 800 oak trees were planted on what is now Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and North Park Boulevard near University Circle to commemorate those lost in World War I.
The ’80s saw nonprofit Clean-Land Ohio planting trees and gardens on Chester and Carnegie avenues and at the Cleveland-Hopkins International Airport. And in 1996, Trees For Tomorrow planted 10,000 trees to celebrate Cleveland’s bicentennial.
Despite those sporadic efforts, Cleveland’s current tree count of 120,000 trees is only half of what was reported 70 years ago.
“Before the Tree Plan, it was more like symbolic gestures rather than treating trees like infrastructure,” says Albro. “You have to treat it like you would the power grid with regard to having a strong infrastructure. Having golden shovels and planting a tree in the ground doesn’t address the problem.”
In 2015, Cleveland unveiled its first citywide effort to revive its tree canopy with a plan that required an outreach and education strategy, completed a comprehensive tree inventory, and instituted policy changes supportive of urban forestry as a means of getting wide-scale buy-in from the public.
In 2018, the Cleveland Tree Coalition announced its goal of planting 361,000 new trees over a 10-year period to make up for the trees being lost. But volunteers with the Cleveland Tree Coalition have only planted roughly 12,000 total trees to date, far short of the needed change.
“For the first three years of the Tree Plan, we really were trying to do what we could by cobbling together volunteer efforts to push for some change in canopy,” says Albro. “The 2019 [county] report helped establish a sense of urgency.”
The county-wide assessment and Climate Change Action Plan put in place in 2019 revealed that Cleveland wasn’t the only area experiencing great loss in tree canopy. Fifty-nine communities within Cuyahoga County have since been tasked with creating their own tree plans in an effort to collectively increase the county’s coverage to 39% or more to match the national average. Already, 26 entities — cities, community development organizations and nonprofits — collectively received $950,000 from the county to initiate various planning and implementation projects to come up with solutions for increasing the tree canopy across the county.
“We’re not looking to just throw money at projects that would be all planting,” says Mike Foley, director of the Cuyahoga County Department of Sustainability. “This was a way to help get the infrastructure in place for communities without a tree plan in place.”
Some cities, such as Euclid and Cuyahoga Heights, have experienced a 2% increase in tree growth due to already existing tree plans over the last decade. But others, such as Lakewood, which lost 18.5% of its tree coverage from 2011 to 2017, have been rigorously planting trees over the last two years. But those new trees will take another six to 10 years to mature. And while all of Cuyahoga County tries to tackle the problem, Cleveland remains hung up in its earliest stages.
Cleveland City Council put a policy in place in 2018 that required developers to submit tree preservation plans before development projects were approved, requiring any trees removed to be replaced.
“In some suburbs, we’ve seen large developers clear-cut land with no policy to replace those trees,” says Albro. “That’s what we need going forward.”
But even with those policies in place, Cleveland is still spinning its wheels on developing a long-term planting strategy.
Cleveland Magazine’s requests for interviews with several city of Cleveland officials were denied. The city provided a statement outlining two planting periods with more than 300 trees going in the ground this spring and another 1,500-2,000 trees being planted in the fall. The city is preparing to bid out work to complete a tree inventory that will help develop a long-term planting strategy.
But the statement failed to address concrete plans for the maintenance and upkeep of those trees.
“It won’t work to expect that the city is going to fix this problem on its own,” says Albro. “To really make a difference, each community will have to approach this in their culturally specific way, and we are already seeing that happen.”