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‘Casey Trees’ program underway

(Published April 23, 2001)

By KATHRYN SINZINGER

Staff Writer

It takes a grand plan to spend $50 million on trees in one city and the organizers of the effort have dubbed it "the reforestation of Washington, D.C."

But whatever you call it, the "Casey Trees" project is underway.

"It’s a huge job — it’s not going to be over in my time," said Barbara Hansen, president of the Garden Club of America.

The club, a nationwide association of 195 member garden clubs, was selected by philanthropist Betty Brown Casey to administer her $50 million gift to "enhance the beauty of the city by replacing dead and missing trees."

The Georgetown Garden Club is among the organization’s members.

While many D.C. residents erroneously thought Casey’s tree-related offer was tied to her offer of a controversial mayoral mansion, Garden Club members have been quietly organizing their administrative efforts to get the ball rolling.

The two offers "are not tied to each other," said Brendan V. Sullivan, an attorney who represents Casey.

An executive director for the tree project was recently hired and will begin work soon at a D.C. office, said Barbara Shea, who chairs the Garden Club’s Casey Trees committee. Shea said much groundwork still needs to be done, such as incorporating a new nonprofit foundation to administer the Casey endowment. The Garden Club has so far received $2 million of the gift as startup funding.

Shea said many D.C. groups that are concerned about the city’s tree canopy have already contacted the Garden Club, some offering assistance such as neughborhood tree inventories. She said coordinating many local groups, and the various local and federal agencies involved with the city’s trees, into the citywide effort will be a major part of the project.

"The people who are going to do this — to make it work — are in D.C." said Shea, who lives in Baltimore. She said the new executive director, whom she declined to identify since she hasn’t yet left her current job, lives in the District.

Shea and Hansen both noted that it could be a year or two before the project begins planting any new trees. Among initial priorities is a study to determine why the city’s trees have been dying and to determine what mix of trees to plant and where.

Hansen said recent tree planting projects in other cities and the boom in development of new, large homes that require tall trees as part of their landscaping has depleted much of the tree supply on the east coast.

"Chicago bought a lot of trees all over the eastern seaboard...and it takes about seven years to grow a tree," Hansen said.

Meanwhile, informational sessions with neighborhood groups are envisioned, as well as possible symposiums at the National Arboretum, to get D.C. residents and schoolchildren involved.

"There’s an army of citizen foresters out there waiting to do something," Shea said.

Also being considered is a pilot project — perhaps in Historic Anacostia, an area where major redevelopment has yet to begin.

"If you take a small area as a pilot project, ideally a place where redevelopment is just getting off the ground so you can plan proper places for the trees...you can show people that if you do it right, this is how you can transform a neighborhood or a business district," Shea said.

Shea said the D.C. government "so far" has seemed cooperative toward the project and has shown "a real commitment." But she said the government needs to consider trees as "part of the city’s infrastructure" and "irreplaceable assets" of the community.

"We need to change the way that people view the urban forest. Part of the problem is that trees are considered decoration," Shea said.

"The average life of a D.C. street tree is five years. We need to get them to view trees as an integral part of the city’s infrastructure when they’re planning things like utilities and sewers and roads."

A 1999 report said the District had lost 30,000 of its 38,000 elm trees and about 64 percent of its tree canopy from 1973 to 1997, she said.

Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator