The $1 billion making history

Courtesy of Danielle Crumrine | Tree Pittsburgh volunteers work to plant trees that support wildlife in Pittsburgh. Executive director Danielle Crumrine encouraged Duquesne students to support climate initiatives around campus.

Emily Ambery | Layout Editor

Trees stabilize soil, increase infiltration of water into the ground and out of the overcrowded sewer system and divert heat energy in urban spaces.

This week, the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service awarded more than $1 billion in grants to plant and maintain trees on Sept. 14, the largest climate investment in history.

Pittsburgh organizations and the City of Pittsburgh forestry division received a combined $9 million in federal funding.

The city’s vacant lots tree planting project is designed to mitigate urban heat effects across city neighborhoods received $1 million. The program, focused on underserved communities, identifies, removes and replaces hazardous plants. The Pittsburgh Canopy Alliance was awarded $8 million.

“Trees are the living breathing anchor that keep soil in place in Pittsburgh.,” said David Kahler, assistant professor in the Center for Environmental Research and Education. “Giving city residents access to greenspaces and including the community in tree maintenance shows Tree Pittsburgh’s support for environmental justice.”

Pittsburgh Canopy Alliance includes Tree Pittsburgh, Western PA Conservancy, Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, Landforce, Allegheny Land Trust, Allegheny County Conservation District, Goatscape, UrbanKind Institute and Friends of the Riverfront.

Dedicated to strengthening and building community vitality through restoring and protecting the urban forest, Tree Pittsburgh’s Executive Director, Danielle Crumrine, led the application. Crumrine, a Duquesne alum, has been executive director for 15 years.

“We’re very fortunate that our proposal was funded as high as it was. We asked for 13 million and we got 8 million, so we’ll have to adjust our numbers but that’s a huge investment,” Crumrine said. “It’s really going to help catalyze a lot of change in the region so we’re super excited.”

Founded in 2020, the Pittsburgh Canopy Alliance expanded to all of Allegheny County when the grant opportunity was announced in January.

The Pittsburgh Canopy Alliance received $8 million to increase tree canopy and support a more resilient urban forest. The grant is entirely focused on Justice40 zones in Allegheny County which includes neighborhoods like the Hill District, Hazelwood and Carrick.

Justice40, a climate justice initiative of the President Biden Administration, uses environmental screening tools to assess zones, neighborhoods or communities that have low tree canopy, higher levels of and are more economically distressed.

“I think equitable access to green spaces is very important, especially in urban areas where green spaces are much less frequent,” said environmental science major John Smajda. “More green space means more trees that can help clean polluted urban air and also help improve and maintain good mental health for urban residents, since green spaces provide a calming atmosphere away from the sometimes hectic city environment.”

The Alliance analyzed data from 2015-2020 and found a net loss of 4,000 acres of tree canopy across Allegheny County. The Alliance aims for a zero net loss future.

Tree Pittsburgh received a large portion of the grant and plants to both maintain existing programs and pilot new initiatives.

Money will go to professional tree care, such as hiring Davey Tree, to support municipalities that do not have the resources for regular maintenance, distributing free trees to residents in Justice40 zones, planting trees, removing invasive species. Companies like Land Force which train adults who face structural barriers to employment, will also receive help from the grant.

The Alliance plans to spend a little of the money this fall, but the bulk of the spending will happen in 2024, 2025 and 2026.

In replanting trees, Crumrine highlighted the mantra, “right tree, right place.”

“We really put a lot of thought into what tree is planted and where we plant it. We plant native trees and heritage varieties, which are trees that might not be purely native, but they’ve been here for a really long time, and they do really well, but we do not plan invasive species,” Crumrine said.

Tree Pittsburgh is piloting a program for low-income homeowners in Justice40 zones who cannot maintain their trees themselves.

“There might be a senior citizen on a fixed income who has a big old oak tree in her yard and doesn’t have the money to prune it, so we would create a fund where she can come to us for support and we’ll pay to prune her tree for her,” Crumrine said.

The Pittsburgh Canopy Alliance grant proposal was one of 385 selected by the Forest Services promoting equitable access to trees and nature and the benefits they provide for cooling city streets, improved air quality, food security, public health and safety. Funding was granted in all 50 states, two U.S. territories and three U.S. affiliated Pacific islands through the IRA.

“The Inflation Reduction Act’s $370 billion in investments will lower energy costs for families and small businesses, accelerate private investment in clean energy solutions in every sector of the economy and every corner of the country,” the IRA executive summary stated.

Initiatives around the country, like Tree Pittsburgh, will begin implementing the grant money, looking toward the future of fighting climate change.

“I think it’s going to be exciting to see the implementation of this funding across the country. Crumrine said.

“If we really do a good job at the storytelling piece, hopefully, people will see the ripple effects that it has on many other parts of our lives, whether it’s public health, mental health economics; there are just so many benefits to planting trees in our communities.”