CINCINNATI -- If you were hoping to land a free acer rubrum for your front yard through the City of Cincinnati this year, you're out of luck.
For the second consecutive year, the city won't play any role in the 29-year-old ReLeaf tree-planting program because the Duke Energy Foundation has shifted its funding to another organization that has a similar objective. The new "it" org is Taking Root, which is based in downtown Cincinnati.
From 1988 until 2015, the city and its urban forestry department had worked with the Cincinnati Parks Foundation and the Duke foundation, which provided the money to purchase trees that were then distributed at no cost to Cincinnati property owners.
The acer rubrum, commonly known as the brandywine maple, is one of five species of trees that were available through ReLeaf last year, when about 400 trees were planted with money provided by the city on a one-time basis because the Duke Foundation had turned down the request for funding.
"We rely on private funding for the trees because they are located on private property," said David Gamstetter, natural resources manager for the city's parks department. "If we don't have the private money, we can't run the program."
He said the 2016 program was an exception to the private funding-private property guideline because his department began work on the project early last year before it learned that Duke would not pay for the trees.
"Once we learned that the program was not going to be funded, we had already advertised and received requests for trees. We used money from our damage and compensation fund to fund the program for fall 2016," Gamstetter said in an email.
"A few months later we learned that Taking Root was interested in asking Duke for funds for a similar program that would distribute trees to the public, and since our grant request was unsuccessful, we encouraged them to apply and are supportive of their efforts," he said.
In the past, the Cincinnati Parks Foundation, a privately funded organization that is separate from the city's parks department, had written the grant application to Duke, which had funded the program for most of its history, Gamstetter said.
"For whatever reason, it was not funded this year, so we're not going to be advertising anything about it," said Gamstetter, adding that the city department played no role in applying for the grant from Duke.
He said his department hopes to re-launch the program next year with money from Duke or another source.
Since the program was launched, the city says about 19,600 trees have been planted throughout Cincinnati by property owners who received free trees with the understanding that they would be positioned so that they were visible from the street, not tucked in the corner of someone's backyard.
The city says the ReLeaf program was created for a variety of reasons, including the "beauty and energy-saving shade" that properly positioned trees can provide for a property owner.
"The importance of trees to the community goes beyond that they look good," said Matt Stenger, executive director of Taking Root, which has an objective of planting 2 million trees in the region by 2020. Trees improve air quality, reduce heating and cooling costs, cut down on storm water runoff and increase property values, he said.
"The benefits of trees greatly outweigh the cost of planting them," Stenger said.
Based on the size of other programs paid for by the city or by other entities that work with the city, ReLeaf is miniscule.
Duke Energy's annual grant for the program was usually between $6,000 and $7,000 and about $3,000 worth of city staff time was invested in ReLeaf, Gamstetter said. The city staff routinely checked out planting sites to ensure they were suitable, compiled a list of sites and the type of tree that had been requested, worked with the city's "woody plants" contractor, and had staffers available to help on delivery day, Gamstetter said.
The Taking Root program extends far beyond the Cincinnati city limits. The organization says it encompasses four counties in Southwest Ohio, three in Northern Kentucky and one more in the southeast corner of Indiana. Including a $25,000 grant from the Duke foundation last year, the organization has received more than $100,000 from a variety of sources in recent years.
A spokesman for Duke said the utility might work with ReLeaf in the future.
"We provided funding to the ReLeaf program from 2001 to 2015, and it's possible we could partner with them again. It all comes down to the hundreds of grant applications we receive each year," Lee J. Freedman, a spokesman for Duke in Cincinnati, said in an email. "We see applications for some amazing programs, and we really wish we could fund each one. But, unfortunately, that's not possible."
Freedman said the foundation has three investment priorities: kindergarten to career programs that help young people, the environment and community impact.
Applications for environmental grants for programs like ReLeaf are reviewed by the foundation's environmental advisory team, which "…reviews each application, and scores them on a variety of factors. The highest-scoring applications are the ones that receive our funding," Freedman said.
He also pointed out that the foundation provides about $1.8 million in grants each year and that when other Duke-related programs are factored in, the company's charitable giving in Southwest Ohio and Northern Kentucky exceeds $3 million per year.
Duke Energy, which acquired Cincinnati-based Cinergy for $9.1 billion in stock in 2005, had been the funding source for ReLeaf since 2001 through its foundation, which is a separate entity from the company that provides gas and electric service. The city's Gamstetter said he was fairly certain that Cinergy had provided money for the program since shortly after it debuted nearly 30 years ago.
Jennifer H. Spieser, executive director of the parks foundation, said her organization applied for ReLeaf funding last year but did not get the grant approved. She said her foundation was a "…grateful recipient of several generous grants" from Duke for many years.
"We understand for 2017, Duke Energy is partnering with Taking Root to help with their initiative to plant (2 million) trees by 2020. Cincinnati Parks will work to support Taking Root on this initiative, too. The mission continues directly through Taking Root, not through Cincinnati Parks this year," Spieser said.
Gamstetter said it's difficult to determine whether the absence of the ReLeaf program will have any substantial impact on the city. But he did point out that some people have had an emotional investment in the project in the past.
"People want to do it themselves. They want to plant them -- dig the hole and get dirty. People get excited about planting trees, and it's a good thing for the community," he said.
Here's how to get your tree
Taking Root is now taking orders for trees that will be available for pickup in late October at Spring Grove Cemetery, shortly before Make A Difference Day, the organization's region-wide tree planting event on Oct. 28.
Anyone who wants to buy a tree that would be planted on Oct. 28 should send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, according to Gayle Ficken-Clarke, who is co-chairing the event with Bobbi Strangfeld. One-gallon trees are $15 and 2-gallon trees are $30, prices that mirror wholesale prices, Ficken-Clarke said.
She said the smaller trees have a better chance of survival and suffer less dramatic "transplant shock" when they are moved from one location to another.
"Planting trees is the only infrastructure improvement that actually increases in value over time," said Ficken-Clarke, noting that streets and streetlights, for example, depreciate as they age.