Modesto celebrated Arbor Day with a ceremonial tree planting Thursday. But the Chinese pistache trees students helped plant at John Muir Elementary might be the only new trees the city will see this year.
Officials hope a state grant will change that. Modesto is applying for up to $1 million that would pay for the city to plant new trees for the first time in years.
The money would be a welcome boost for Modesto, which prides itself on its trees but doesn't have the resources it once did to care for them.
Five years ago, the city spent $3.2 million tending its urban forest. This year the forestry budget is $2.3 million. The cutbacks have made it harder than ever for Modesto to maintain its urban forest, which has more than 110,000 trees.
If the city wins the state grant, the money would pay for buying and planting 4,000 new trees.
"It's a giant step in the right direction," said Chuck Gilstrap, a retired city forestry worker and tree advocate. "However, this will not catch us up with what hasn't been planted."
Modesto started planting trees in the 1940s. When those trees fell ill, died or got blown over by the wind, the city replaced them with saplings from its nursery. Modesto planted 1,500 to 2,000 trees each year, Gilstrap said. The city-run nursery and tree-planting program were cut about five years ago.
"We're looking at this grant to bring the urban forest back up to where it has been," said Loren Holt, acting planning and development manager. "The benefit is cooler streets and cooler housing and also the urban forest helps to remove pollutants from the air."
The grant would cover maintenance costs for the first three years of the trees' lives, which are critical to their growth, Holt said.
Long-term maintenance on the new trees would be cheaper than what the city pays for tree upkeep now because it's picking heartier species that are less prone to disease, Holt said.
For example, the city would choose ginkgos and oaks over Dutch elms and Modesto ash, Holt said.
Modesto ash is a species of tree that was developed and patented by the city's arborists back when Modesto had a nursery. City employees also created and patented a species called Pearl Street pistache. The tree is ideal for urban use because its branches grow upward, instead of drooping toward the sidewalk, Gilstrap said.
Modesto has been recognized as a Tree City USA for 30 years. To qualify for the status, a city must spend $2 per resident on its tree programs. Modesto will spend about $10.90 per resident on its forestry program this year.