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Milwaukee lands $12 million to boost urban forest

a man in safety gear checks his harness in a pulley system inside a tree
Lina Tran
A member of the city's forestry crew checks his harness before climbing the tree to prune.

Trees were the star of the show on Monday morning at the Lynden Hill Urban Tree House in Midtown. Young trees had just been planted at the hilly park over the weekend. Blushing leaves chattered in the autumn wind.

And Mayor Cavalier Johnson announced a $12 million federal grant, funded by President Joe Biden’s sweeping climate bill, that will bolster Milwaukee’s urban forest. The grant was awarded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service.

"It will deliver on the city's effort to increase nature in the city to mitigate the effects of extreme heat as well as rainfall events that are and will continue to impact Wisconsin as a result of climate change," Johnson said in a press conference on Monday.

The money comes as the city is working to improve tree equity, a measure of whether trees are equitably distributed across the city. In Milwaukee, wealthier neighborhoods enjoy more trees — and all the benefits they provide, such as locking up carbon, improving air quality, casting shade on a hot summer day and soaking up water in a heavy storm. Studies also show that trees improve our physical and mental health.

A 2021 report from the nonprofit American Forests included Milwaukee on its list of 20 cities that have the most health, economic and climate benefits to gain by increasing tree planting in neighborhoods with the least coverage.

Milwaukee has an average tree canopy coverage of 25%. But wide disparities exist, with wealthier neighborhoods having tree canopy coverage around 45%, while some lower-income neighborhoods have as little as 6%.

The investment arrives on the heels of a summer upended by climate change, both in Wisconsin and nationwide, from bouts of extreme heat to stretches of smoky skies and poor air quality. Warming winters are also helping tree pests like emerald ash borer spread farther outside their historic ranges.

“Wisconsinites, we’re feeling the impacts of climate change all over the state,” said Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley. “Whether we’re talking about the extreme heat — it may not feel like that today — but whether we’re talking about the increase in flooding, we know that we have to take action right now.”

Johnson said all of the program’s work will take place in disadvantaged communities, as defined by a federal tool and in alignment with a White House environmental justice initiative, known as Justice40.

a map of milwaukee shows tree equity scores
Tree equity map of Milwaukee. Orange represents census blocks with the highest priority tree needs. If a neighborhood has a low relative canopy cover and a high concentration of people living under the poverty line, that neighborhood would have a lower tree equity score and be colored in orange.

The money will be used to plant and take care of trees, as well as de-pave asphalt lots across the city and develop the city's green workforce. It will also be used to remove dead or sick trees, which pose a hazard to residents.

Milwaukee Public Schools, or MPS, will receive a portion of the funds to continue transforming asphalt schoolyards to green spaces that soak up water and slow flooding, implementing features like bioswales, rain gardens and permeable pavement.

“This project will include the addition of more trees to MPS playgrounds and recreation sites, many of which are used by the community year-round,” said Paulette Chambers, chief of staff at MPS.

“MPS is striving and continues to strive to give students the opportunity to work side by side with arborists, through this grant, expanding their knowledge about forestry," she continued.

Green workforce development is a major priority in the city, and nationwide, and a hallmark initiative of the Climate and Equity plan that the Common Council adopted earlier this summer. That plan views so-called green jobs as not only necessary to enable the clean energy transition and mitigate climate change, but also as opportunities to improve economic equity and recruit people of color to a spate of new jobs.

“Through this program, [we] seek to increase tree-pruning efforts, remove diseased trees, and plant more trees to increase employment opportunities in urban forestry careers,” Crowley said.

Nearby on 22nd Street, a city forestry crew offered a picture of what that could look like. Some were apprentices, learning the ropes — literally. One crew member used a pulley system to hoist himself high into the limbs of a maple tree.

He used a handsaw to lop off a weak branch, shaking it loose before it crashed on the ground. The hope is that if we take care of the trees, they’ll stick around longer and return the favor.

Lina is a WUWM news reporter.
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