Forests are critical to the health of the Chesapeake Bay—they protect clean water and air, provide habitat to wildlife and support the region’s economy. However, since European settlement of the region in the 17th century, deforestation has taken a toll on the once thriving forests of the mid-Atlantic region. Human influences such as development and parcelization have reduced forest acreage from 95 to about 45 percent of historic coverage.
Deforestation in the Bay region may seem a problem that is too complex to tackle, but one man, dubbed the modern-day Johnny Appleseed, is proof that a little curiosity, passion and hard work can have profound effects on the environment. John Smucker, a Technology Education teacher at Northwest Middle School in Taneytown, Maryland, has become a catalyst for reforestation efforts, melding his engineering experience with restoration initiatives.
Smucker recalls the moment 10 years ago that sparked his interest in forest restoration. “It all started behind my house with a reforestation effort, but all of the trees that were planted slowly died. I didn’t like that so I did a lot of research to help [the trees] out and fell in love with the process, which led me to start dropping acorns into empty tree shelters,” said Smucker.
The moment created a ripple effect that resulted in Smucker spearheading forest restoration by organizing volunteer plantings and entering into a partnership with Mount Saint Mary’s University and the Francis Scott Key Center. Both locations provide space for Smucker to grow the thousands of trees he uses for plantings.
Smucker spends about 700 hours every year in all aspects of creating riparian buffers, like meeting with landowners, auguring the holes, organizing the volunteers and also conducting the most critical part of the process Smucker says, maintenance. Plantings are held on Saturdays during April, May and October – the most opportune months for tree survivability and comfortable outdoor temperatures for volunteers to work.
When choosing planting locations, Smucker explains, “Being a grower really is a game changer for me, because I can fully understand what the trees need to survive.” Once a site is selected, he samples the soil, observes what plant species are in the area, spends time in his greenhouses flagging all of the appropriate trees for the site and rallies his volunteer base around the planting.
When it comes to tree plantings, the name of the game is fun and education. Many of his volunteers are young people who are in a mindset to learn. Each planting is preceded with an ecology lesson highlighting the importance of riparian zones, stream shading and nutrient removal. “As a middle school teacher it is important to organize the event so it’s fun and rewarding, because if they get frustrated, they will associate that frustration with tree planting. If they associate it with fun, then the environmental stewardship will perpetuate a lot better. If it’s organized right and goes smoothly then it’s a feel-good thing, just like in the classroom,“ Smucker explained.
Smucker encourages his students to work out solutions to engineering problems with the tree plantings and challenges them to think up innovative ways to overcome obstacles. “Tree planting and technology education are really the same thing. It’s problem solving and the engineering design process. What is the problem? What is the solution? Evaluate and modify,” said Smucker.
Over the years, Smucker’s volunteer base and partner organizations have expanded to the point where he has been able to launch an organization of his own, Stream Link Education, a nonprofit that organizes and leads tree plantings with local community members, organizations and businesses. “The coolest thing I think we do is Natives for Nonprofits. We grow trees for giveaways to other organizations, which is great because budgets are really tight and donations are hugely welcome. It also helps establish partnerships, not because I want something in return but because it’s neat to make connections,” said Smucker.
Smucker aims to perpetuate choices and actions by providing people with hands on educational experiences. “If you’re excited about something and value it, then demonstrate the value, they [the volunteers] will see it. The excitement can be catching,” he said. He continued to explain that in addition to educating others and improving the environment, his enthusiasm for restoration remains strong because he is still able to grow as well, “I’m going to turn 50 in January and I’m thinking, ‘if I do this right, I’ve got my 50’s and 60’s and if I can stay healthy, I can do this for a long time.’ And that’s great. There is always something to learn.”
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program's Flickr page
The above 1913 photograph depicts rows of American lindens planted along Washington D.C.’s Massachusetts Avenue, west of Dupont Circle. The “double rows” of trees were planted in the 1880s, but many disappeared as the street was developed, new embassies were built, and utility lines installed. As a street that has historically been an international relations hub (it is home to major embassies), the loss of trees along Massachusetts Avenue seemed to represent the worldwide preference of commercialism over nature.
(Image courtesy Restore Mass Ave/Washingtoniana MLK Library)
Today, the climate has shifted, and politicians jump at the chance to get their photo taken in front of a newly planted tree; but long before the diplomats grabbed their shovels (and press staff), Deborah Shapley was walking up and down Massachusetts Avenue, knocking on her neighbors’ doors, and asking them how far their hoses could stretch to water parched trees in the sidewalk.
Washington’s D.C.'s Department of Transportation's Urban Forestry Administration has taken the important step of planting trees along streets throughout the city, but it did not have the resources to water them. For young trees, lack of water lowers their chances of survival in Washington’s hot summers. Instead of complaining, Deborah encouraged her neighbors to take on the responsibility of watering their nearest city sidewalk tree as if it were their own.
“I started Restore Mass.Ave to be a model of how to get local property owners excited about taking care of the city trees near them.”
But convincing property owners to take care of a tree that isn’t technically in their yard is not so easy.
“People tend not to care about the landscape that is more than a house or two away,” explains Deborah. “So the cry for them to take care of trees beyond a certain distance, that’s just not practical to them.”
But since Deborah began Restore Mass Ave in 2007, more and more residents and embassies along the street have come to understand that these trees are dually beautifying their community and helping to absorb stormwater runoff.
(Image courtesy Restore Mass Ave)
In addition to caring for the 100 sidewalk trees installed by the city, Restore Mass has worked with Casey Trees to plant 125 new trees since 2007. Most of the 225 total trees are large shade trees, which absorb stormwater and lessen pressure on the neighborhood's combined sewer system.
Like most of downtown Washington D.C., Massachusetts Avenue has a combined sewer system (css), which collects water from both stormwater runoff and household’s sanitary sewage. The CSS conveys this to treatment plants to be cleaned before it flows into the Chesapeake Bay.
But during heavy rain events, the combined sewer system often overflows; the stormwater and sanitary wastes flow directly into the Anacostia or Potomac River. This can cause an excess of bacteria and other pollutants in Washington D.C.’s tributaries, rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.
While it is always important to find ways to decrease the amount of stormwater runoff flowing into storm drains, it is particularly crucial in neighborhoods with combined sewer overflows (roughly one-third of the District of Columbia).
“The city is under requirements from the EPA to rebuild the underground tunnels and pipes” associated with the combined overflow system, explains Deborah. “They’re only able to do a certain amount per year of underground infrastructure. But large trees naturally conduct precipitation down into the soil and lowers the burden the underground pipes.”’
Stormwater will instead be absorbed by trees, and help to recharge the groundwater so more plants can grow.
“If you have a continuous line of shade trees alongside of a gutter, less water flows into that storm drain, and less water is barreling around in the tunnels of the combined stormwater system,” Deborah says.
While trees help to absorb stormwater during rain events, they do need to be watered when it is not raining. Droughts and heat waves make it difficult for young trees to survive on their own. Luckily, Restore Mass Ave’s volunteers, known as “Treekeepers,” make sure care is given to every sidewalk tree.
Since roughly one-third of Mass Ave properties are foreign-owned, the organization works with embassies to plant trees on their grounds.
While it was once typical for embassies’ groundskeepers to maintain flowers the colors of the nations’ flags, it is now popular for embassies to also maintain the surrounding trees. Governments relate the activity to their climate change agendas. Groundskeepers become, in effect, "Treekeepers."
“They have a sense of ownership that they didn’t have before,” says Deborah. “When you give people who care for plants the chance to grow nearby sidewalk trees, they are delighted.”
As Restore Mass Ave encourages private homeowners and embassy staffs to care for trees in public space, the sense of shared community and stewardship multiplies.
“As in many neighborhoods, we found that the embassies don’t often talk to each other, but when you point out the common trees, and you engage all the staff, it becomes their common garden,” explains Deborah.
While Restore Mass Ave may have found a way to create a sense of an international environmental stewardship, Deborah, founder and president of the all-volunteer organization, concedes that the nonprofit would like to expand its influence, but not its area.
“The idea is to not take over a bigger and bigger area, but to get other people to start their own groups, such as Restore Georgia Avenue or Restore Connecticut Avenue. Only as more people here understand the importance and fun of growing trees, will DC become the ‘City of Trees’ as it was known a century ago."
(Image courtesy Restore Mass Ave)
For more information on how you can get involved with Restore Mass Ave or start your own “Restore” on your street, visit the Restore Mass Ave Volunteer page.
Restore Mass Ave is trying to spread the word, via their Tree Care Blog (http://blog.restoremassave.org) and their Facebook and Twitter (#restoremassave).
Last week, I volunteered with the National Aquarium in Baltimore for a day of shoreline buffer planting at the Naval Support Facility at Indian Head, located along the banks of the Potomac River in Maryland. Over the course of five days, Aquarium staff, the Maryland Conservation Corps, Charles County Master Gardeners and local residents planted over 5,000 native grass plants and 1,500 native trees along 4,830 feet of Potomac shoreline.
I’m pretty sure the trees I planted that day are among the most protected in the state of Maryland. After successfully passing through several security checks to enter the Naval facility, I met up with Aquarium staff at the marina. We then piled into vans and passed through yet another security checkpoint before entering what I was told was a highly restricted area of the base (think ‘explosive deliveries’ signs and mysterious steam hanging in the air). We soon arrived at the drop-off and scampered down a steep hill to our planting site along the Potomac River.
When I arrived at the site, I was given the job of ferrying plants from the center of the site to their new and permanent home along the shoreline. There were low, medium and high marsh plant species that had to be placed accordingly. After ferrying the plants to their new home, the planting brigade -- mostly Maryland Conservation Corps folks -- dug holes and planted the trees.
After a short lunch break, I informed those in charge that I wanted to participate in the planting so I could have a more well-rounded day of volunteering (and because ferrying the plants was a lot of walking!). Soon after I began planting, I truly realized how difficult it is to successfully plant a tree. For some holes I had to use a pick ax to get through the tough soil! After about three hours of planting, we had completed our section for the day and all the trees were securely in the ground.
I climbed back up to the top of the hill where I had been dropped off in the morning and looked down upon the section we had planted. It was amazing to see the sea of plants below me and the hard work of everyone volunteering that day. I’m curious to see what the site will look like in five, 10 and 20 years when the plants have established.
I especially enjoy these days of my job when I’m able to leave the office and experience watershed restoration first-hand. I walked away from that day with muddy boots, sore arms and a greater appreciation for ferrying plants.