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News / Northwest

WA awards more than $8 million in grants to plant urban trees

By Isabella Breda, The Seattle Times
Published: February 29, 2024, 7:49am

SEATTLE — More than $8 million in grants are coming to tribal nations, cities and community groups throughout the state to plant urban trees.

The grants announced Thursday are part of a statewide effort to boost “tree equity” in urban areas most affected by pollution, flooding and other extreme weather events, like the unprecedented 2021 heat wave that killed in Washington.

As the climate warms, its impacts are often felt most acutely in urban areas that already support large polluting industries and lack places of refuge. A King County study found that communities along the Duwamish River might experience temperatures 10 or more degrees higher than neighborhoods up north on a hot day.

The grants are funded by fees collected through the state’s carbon-pricing market and the federal Inflation Reduction Act. They will allow tribal nations, cities, towns and community organizations to plant trees, study canopy coverage and lead educational programs.

They will reach the work of immigrant communities in South Seattle, Tacoma Tree Foundation’s Green Blocks program in the city’s Hilltop neighborhood, the Spokane Tribal Network’s community forest — and more than 40 other projects across the state.

All who applied for and were awarded grants will be invited to join the state’s fledgling tree equity collaborative, a network of people involved in tree planting and related environmental justice work in their communities. The state Department of Natural Resources launched the collaborative last year.

“As we see a rapidly changing climate, you hear me speak about wildfires getting worse, the challenges that our aquatic plants face,” Hilary Franz, commissioner of Public Lands, said in an interview. “People need to realize that right now heat is our deadliest weather disaster. Where there is heat, there is death, and we have the power to do something about it right now by planting trees, maintaining the trees we have and designing our communities around trees.”

At least a third of the projects awarded grants will serve communities with “low” tree equity scores.

Tree equity, a term coined by American Forests, is a measure of whether there are enough trees in a neighborhood for everyone to experience the health, economic and climate benefits of trees. Scores are calculated based on tree canopy, surface temperature, income, employment, race, age, language and community health factors.

On the state’s environmental health disparities map, communities receiving the grants averaged a score of over 7 out of 10, representing the highest disparities. The map considers exposure to pollution, like diesel emissions, ozone concentration and fine particle pollution, as well as proximity to toxic waste sites.

Per the state’s Evergreen Communities Act, at least 50% of the total funding awarded is required to support projects in communities with high environmental health disparities.

Redlining, or racially discriminatory mortgage and land-use policies, shaped the inequities that persist today. The term comes from New Deal era homeownership programs that restricted where people could buy or rent property based on their income, ethnicity and race, literally redlining some communities deemed risky for investments.

Today, many redlined communities across the state experience the worst air pollution, some on the fringes or within industrial zones that support airports, warehouses and industries like fossil fuel refineries. Historically redlined neighborhoods have fewer trees, studies show, contributing to mental and physical health issues and extreme weather impacts.

In Seattle, census tracts in places like the Duwamish Valley, Sodo and Beacon Hill have tree equity scores up to nearly 40 points below that of North Seattle neighborhoods of Madrona and Ravenna.

Neighborhoods in Seattle’s Council District 1, encompassing West Seattle and neighborhoods along the Duwamish, lost more than 3% of their trees from 2016 to 2021. Parks and residential areas recorded the greatest net losses, making up 78% of the total canopy loss.

Last year, the city pledged to plant and grow 8,000 trees on public and private properties and 40,000 seedlings in natural areas in the next five years. So far, the city has planted about 2,200 trees on public and private lands and almost 10,000 in natural areas, said Jessyn Farrell, director of the office of Sustainability and Environment. Urban forestry projects in the city led by several nonprofits, as well as the Seattle Department of Transportation, were awarded grants totaling more than $1 million.

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The city was also recently awarded nearly $13 million in federal grants to bring more trees to Delridge, the Chinatown International District and Beacon Hill. The work will include cultivating native plants and trees near Longfellow Creek, and working with community members to care for the trees, and could start as soon as this fall.

“When we’re focused on just ‘planting,’ we can overlook some of the root causes that got us to where we’re at right, like the root injustice of the development of urban heat islands. And the related deaths and illnesses that disproportionately affect Black, Indigenous and communities of color,” said Chiyo Crawford, executive director of the Environmental Coalition of South Seattle, referencing the work of her staff, including senior program manager Miranda Perez.

The coalition, a nonprofit, will receive more than $120,000 to bring together immigrant and refugee communities in South Seattle to share and learn from each others’ personal relationships with trees. The coalition would shape urban forestry projects, like community tree walks, plantings or educational opportunities from those stories.

In traditional urban forestry practices in the U.S., sometimes renters or people with lower incomes, who in some cases can’t plant trees or maintain them in perpetuity, are left out of the conversation, Crawford said. The coalition’s work would help center a wide range of community perspectives on how to expand access to trees in South Seattle.

The Tacoma Tree Foundation was formed to grow the urban forest and improve community health in a city with the least amount of tree canopy of any city in the Puget Sound region, said Lowell Wyse, executive director of the foundation.

Five of the grant projects are located in Tacoma and are slated to receive more than $1.3 million.

Today, the tree foundation’s Green Blocks program douses neighborhoods in green, providing hundreds of free trees ranging from species like Bing cherry and fig to white pine, cedar and fir.

The group was awarded $350,000 to support its goal of planting 600 street trees on residential properties in the Hilltop neighborhood, provide education on caring for the trees and build community-based urban forestry efforts in the community.

Residents can sign up to receive trees to plant themselves, or request planting assistance and other resources from the foundation to help them grow and stay alive.

“I think it’s pretty important in all cultures, that they maintain their land, and the Puyallup Tribe maintained this land for eons,” said Alejandro Fernández, community partnership coordinator for the foundation. “Today it requires all of us. I think it requires community members to step up and engage with their neighbors and do something about it.”

On the east side of the state, the Spokane Tribal Network, a nonprofit focused on community empowerment and preserving cultural heritage, is planning to create a community forest demonstrating tribal food sovereignty.

The network was awarded $166,015 for the project intended to address environmental and human health vulnerabilities on the Spokane Reservation and strengthen cultural and climate resilience through Indigenous land stewardship.

“Connecting our people with our plant foods and medicines is our passion,” said Spokane Tribal Network Director Penny Spencer. “Now, we are making the moves to meet the community in the places of greatest alignment with their values and ideas well as ours.”

DNR has provided a link to download a complete list of grant applications selected for funding.