In celebration of Arbor Day, New Jersey Commissioner of Environmental Protection Shawn M. LaTourette and Sustainable Jersey Director Randall Solomon planted two white oak trees with students at the Morris Avenue Early Childhood Learning Center in Long Branch on April 28 to launch a new grant program to spur the planting of trees at schools across the state.

Funded by Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative auction proceeds, the $2.5 million Trees for Schools program will emphasize the benefits of planting more trees in overburdened communities.

The Trees for Schools program will provide grants to New Jersey public school districts, county and state colleges, and state universities to fund the planting of trees on their campuses. Competitive grants of $10,000 to $500,000 will be awarded to fund costs associated with planning, site preparation, trees, planting, watering, monitoring and related expenses over a three-year period. The Trees for Schools program is a collaboration of the DEP, The College of New Jersey and Sustainable Jersey. Morris Avenue School is certified at the silver-level with Sustainable Jersey for Schools.

“DEP is eager to support communities across New Jersey working to expand green space, reduce extreme heat, and improve stormwater management by investing in the resource that helps meet each of these goals — more trees,” LaTourette said. “Increasing tree cover means soaking up more stormwater runoff, providing shade that can reduce heat island effects and energy use, and reducing greenhouse gases that fuel climate change by naturally sequestering carbon. As we reflect on the value of our trees this Arbor Day, DEP is making new investments in tree equity to help ensure that all communities better enjoy their beauty and benefits.”

Under LaTourette’s leadership, the DEP has prioritized development of parks, green spaces and tree planting in overburdened communities, which studies have shown can be up to 20 degrees hotter in the summer compared to wealthier neighborhoods with more green space.

Consistent with the Biden administration’s Justice40 Initiative, 40% of the grant funding will be set aside for applicants located in overburdened communities, with preference given to schools with the highest impervious surface coverage (i.e. paved surfaces such as paved areas and buildings) and lowest tree coverage.

“Planting and caring for trees help our students learn about ecosystems and the valuable role trees play. The Trees for Schools program will foster positive connections between students and the trees in their community with the goal of cultivating a lifelong respect for trees,” said Randall Solomon, director of Sustainable Jersey. “The Trees for Schools program will provide schools, colleges and universities with the resources they need to expand their campus tree canopy while allowing students this important connection.”

“On this Arbor Day, we are sharing with our children an appreciation for the importance of trees in keeping our environment healthy,” said Long Branch Mayor John Pallone. “These new trees at the Morris Avenue School are great reminders of the lessons in sustainability our children are learning thanks to the support of the DEP, TCNJ and Sustainable Jersey.”

“Morris Avenue students and staff are excited to help our environment by adding trees to our grounds,” said Matt Johnson, principal of the Morris Avenue Early Childhood Learning Center. “Our students have enjoyed learning about the importance of trees. This tree planting event demonstrates the importance of preserving the environment for generations to come.”

The program is funded through New Jersey’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a multi-state, market-based program that establishes a regional cap on carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel power plants. Proceeds from cap auctions are used to fund programs that benefit the environment.

This grant program aligns with the priorities set forth in New Jersey’s RGGI Strategic Funding Plan, which supports the state’s commitment to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions, transition to clean energy and improve environmental conditions in communities that have been disproportionately burdened by pollution.

New Jersey public schools, school districts, county colleges and state colleges and universities are encouraged to review the grant application and materials. Applications are due on July 13, 2023, for spring 2024 plantings.

According to the Arbor Day Foundation, Arbor Day traces its roots to Nebraska, where a newspaper editor, J. Sterling Morton, proposed a holiday to promote planting of trees for windbreaks to keep soil in place, for fuel and building materials and for shade. Some one million trees were planted that first Arbor Day. Today, Arbor Day is celebrated nationally on the fourth Friday of April to celebrate the many benefits of trees.