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Some Mon Valley communities on board with TreeVitalize program

| Saturday, March 29, 2014, 1:46 a.m.
Cindy Shegan Keeley | Daily News
Jim Butler and Nancy Merriman, who are members of McKeesport's recently reformed shade tree commission, are trying to bring trees back to desolate sidewalks like this one on Cornell Street.
Cindy Shegan Keeley | Daily News
Trees still line this block of Coursin Street in McKeesport but other roads have lost much of their greenery. Members of the city's shade tree commission are working to bring more trees back to the city.

It's easy to take trees for granted. They're part of the scenery in most parts of the planet, though not all locales are equally endowed.

Urbanized areas by their very nature tend to come up short on trees and greenery.

Re-establishing flora in areas where concrete and buildings dominate presents problems that a squirrel randomly hiding acorns is likely to solve.

“We're doing our homework,” said Jim Butler of McKeesport, who is one of three residents endeavoring to re-establish the city's long dormant shade tree commission.

The reformation of the commission — which Butler said was founded in 1924 — is one of several formal efforts going on to bring more greenery to this part of the Mon Valley.

Bringing back the commission was done primarily so the city could apply to Western Pennsylvania Conservancy's TreeVitalize program. The group submitted its application earlier this month.

The TreeVitalize program has planted more than 20,000 trees since its founding in 2008, and local conditions appear favorable for continued growth.

Like McKeesport, West Homestead has submitted an application to the program this month with hopes of being accepted for a round of fall plantings.

The borough appointed a shade tree commission to fulfill a requirement of the application process.

West Homestead and TreeVitalize representatives already have identified park areas near Calhoun Ballfield and the fire station for tree plantings.

TreeVitalize has plans to work with Glassport, Wilmerding and Pleasant Hills to identify potential areas for trees in those communities, according to Marah Vecenie of TreeVitalize. She said the assessment is being done in advance of a fall application deadline for the program.

“Trees increase property value,” said Vecenie, who noted participating communities can get 25 trees for free, provided they fall within the organization's median income guidelines. TreeVitalize uses 150 different varieties of trees from locally sourced nurseries based on the needs of a site.

“We make sure it's a worthwhile spot,” Vecenie said.

The program has installed containerized trees in industrialized areas, and Vecenie said having support from local government and trained volunteers who look after the trees is essential.

“We get really close and we help them develop tree ordinances,” she said. “We make sure care is given to trees. We want to make sure the trees live.”

Hopes are high in West Homestead that the borough will be accepted this year into the TreeVitalize program.

Just this week, the community was recognized as a silver level member of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Sustainable Community Essentials Certification program.

The award, from Sustainable Pittsburgh, recognizes municipalities that deploy sustainability policies and practices.

In McKeesport, Butler said he is getting support from city hall for his efforts and that the commission is looking first to plant trees in the vicinity of the new Twin Rivers Primary/Intermediate School complex, an area that has been dubbed the Cultural and Educational Sector.

“There are a lot of trees that have died up there,” said Butler, who has received training from TreeVitalize. “We feel if we concentrate in a tight geographic area and show impact, it will grow.”

Other members of the shade tree commission in McKeesport are Leon Coleman and Nancy Merriman.

Eric Slagle is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.