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New York City

Citizen Pruners

If you see someone hacking away at that overgrown tree on your block, chances are, she's doing a good deed

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A few years back, an arborist noticed the branch of a linden tree protruding over a Manhattan street. She decided to amputate on the spot. But the owner of a nearby restaurant was watching, and threatened to call the police. That’s when the arborist pulled out a laminated badge that read “CITIZEN PRUNER.

The arborist had been trained and certified by TreesNY, a 35-year-old not for profit group playing a central role in New York City’s efforts to combat climate change. Aiming to become what Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg calls the “first environmentally sustainable 21st Century city,” New York has promised to plant a million trees. But it has scant resources to care for young trees once they take root in a hostile urban environment.

It has left the task largely to citizen volunteers. That is where TreesNY comes in.

“All of our programs are designed to help us meet our mission, which is to plant, preserve, and protect New York City street trees,” said Maeve Bacer, project manager for TreesNY, which has so far certified 11,000 New Yorkers as volunteer tree pruners.

How The People Got the Job

TreesNY was founded during the city’s fiscal crisis of the 1970s, when the budget of the Department of Parks and Recreation was slashed. One important casualty seemed certain to be trees. So a small group of citizens got together to rescue the urban forest from a bad fate.

Their efforts gradually took root: TreesNY obtained funding from private foundations, conducted an annual end-of-the-year appeal and attracted volunteers.
In 2007, TreesNY was named as a participant in PlaNYC, Mayor Bloomberg’s 30-year environment blueprint for the city.

Hurdles remained. In a city where the soil is far from ideal, trucks demolish low limbs and dogs constantly urinate on trunks, nurturing trees is difficult. The mission became recruiting more volunteers.

“A lot of them organize their own neighborhoods,” Bacer said. “We love that.”

People vs. Trees

But conflicts abound. Not everyone is willing to care for - or even wants - trees in their neighborhood.

“There are three kinds of people,” Bacer said. “Those who love trees, those who don’t know much about them but develop a respect once they learn more about them, and there are people that know the trees but just don’t like them.”

So skirmishes ensue. People rail against the mess made by leaves and branches falling from their neighbors’ trees. If not for those trees in the sidewalk, some will argue, the dogs would stay away.

“It’s like a toilet outside of my restaurant!” a restaurateur once told Bacer.

Some, like the infamous “Tree Killer” of Astoria, do more than complain. In 1995, Andrew Campanile, a city firefighter, was arrested for forging a city work permit when he led a crew that cut down eight trees.

Still, city planners say the benefits of an urban forest far outweigh its problems.
“The benefit of the street tree is not to the individual owner, but to the community as a whole,” said Nelson Villarrubia, the director of programs and development at TreesNY.

Then TreesNY was chosen to lead volunteer tree maintenance in Manhattan.
“It provides an added boost to our visibility,” said Villarrubia.

So far, 315,000 new trees have been planted across the city’s five boroughs. “Theoretically, the plan is great. But there’s always a huge gap between caring and implementation,” said Bacer.

Indeed, some citizen pruners argue that the city’s tree planting campaign is moving too fast. They say more money should be spent on caring for existing trees instead of planting new ones.

“They are planting like crazy, and they just don’t come back because they don’t have time,” said Tracey Hohman, a TreesNY alumni and certified pruner in Brooklyn.

Citizen Pruners

Volunteers pay $100 for the course, attend eight hours of classroom training and eventually become licensed pruners.

“The range of people these classes attract is really cool,” said Bacer.

“I’m kind of humbled by the whole experience,” said Larry Diamond, an investment banker, who stumbled into becoming a citizen pruner. Initially, he said, he had little interest in trees, but wanted to include the initials “C.P.” on his business card, suggesting that he might be a certified public accountant.

His efforts may not have advanced his Wall Street career, but Diamond has become a committed steward of city trees.

Diane Laviana said she became a citizen pruner after walking through a park and realizing that she had “no idea what kind of trees they were.” Now, like most citizen pruners, she is familiar with most of New York City’s 168 species of trees.
Citizen pruners are limited by city rules, and cannot climb ladders or scale tall trees. Both feet must be on the ground while pruning.

Still, the effort seems to be paying off.

“The city’s so big, it’s hard to feel like you’re doing anything to help out,” said pruner Steve Boyce. “But this is something where a single person can make a difference.”

Anna Ben Yehuda studies journalism at New York University

Volunteer aborists prune trees that need it. Photo by Thomas Lueck

Digging in. Photo by Thomas Lueck