Two women secure a green tube around a young tree planted in an open field.
Katie Brownson (left) of the U.S. Forest Service plants a tree with Carin Bisland (right) of the Environmental Protection Agency. Both Browson and Bisland work at the Chesapeake Bay Program office. (Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)

When I showed up for a volunteer tree planting on the Friday before Earth Day, it looked like the job was already done. Rows of green tubes encasing young trees lined an open field in Lothian, Maryland, some with bright leaves already sticking out of the tops of the tubes. But that’s because the field had been planted more than a year before—and we were there to replant the trees that didn’t survive.

“We had an 85% survival rate on the 36 acres we planted,” said Craig Highfield, forests program director at the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. According to Highfield, this is an above average survival rate, but on the plot of land we were there to work on, the survival count was closer to 65%. “In a forest you’re going to have mortality,” said Highfield.

In November, 2021, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay began reforesting 36 acres within the Emory Waters Nature Preserve at Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary. For decades, four different plots of land within the property were used to cultivate grain crops, and before that, likely grew tobacco. The nature preserve is named after Emory Waters, an African American man who once lived within Jug Bay and farmed the land.

A thin stem with four leaves pops out of the top of a tube encasing the tree.
The first few years of a reforestation project are critical. Foresters have to provide maintenance and replant trees that don't survive. (Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)

Over time, it was decided that this land, which is owned by Anne Arundel County, would be better suited as forest than farmland. So, in October, 2021, the last crop was harvested and the reforestation effort began.

Reforestation differs from typical tree plantings in size and scope. When planting just a handful of trees, foresters typically use more mature trees that have been growing for several years at a nursery. But with a reforestation project, where you’re attempting to establish hundreds or thousands of trees, foresters use small seedlings that are no more than a foot high. Seedlings are much less expensive than mature trees and easier to transport. Because their roots are less extensive, they become secure in the soil quicker after planting, and they also don’t need to be watered like mature trees.

As volunteers, me and my colleagues at the Chesapeake Bay Program were helping to plant year-old seedlings throughout the field. For at least three years after a planting the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay coordinates maintenance of a site. At Emory Waters, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources was contracted for the maintenance, which includes mowing around the trees so that the seedlings aren’t overtaken by weeds, removing invasive plants that are a threat and replanting trees that died off.

“In those first few years of planting trees, that maintenance is essential,” said Highfield.

Man helps three others secure a tree.
Craigh Highfield (left) shows three Chesapeake Bay Program employees how to properly secure a newly planted tree. (Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program)

Reforesting an area, as I learned that day, requires more strategy than just letting nature take its course. Foresters have the option of letting vegetation establish itself and progress over a time without intervention, a process known as forest succession, but according to Highfield this can lead to forests with very little diversity.

“If we were to just let this go, we would have maybe 99% sweetgum and 1% sycamore,” said Highfield.

Without a diversity of tree species, forests are less resilient because a disease or invasive species specific to one tree could wipe out a whole site. A wider variety of trees also provides more benefits to birds and mammals in the area.

At Emory Waters, we were planting 10 different species of trees that will eventually turn into a diverse forest. The project is an investment that will begin to improve water quality for the Patuxent River watershed, as it did once before.

“It’ll start looking like a natural forest 20 years from now,” said Highfield.


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