If you farm within the sprawling Chesapeake Bay Watershed or other sensitive watersheds around the country, there is a better than even chance, you’ve heard about USDA Riparian Forest Buffer Programs. These initiatives supported by the Joint Chiefs’ Landscape Restoration Partnership are actively working, in earnest, to take whatever strategies or financial measures possible, to encourage farmers, ranchers and landowners to plant trees next to waterbodies. Why? According to countless, well-founded, and funded studies, trees and shrubs provide ecosystem services and habitat that help with water retention and provide an innumerable water quality benefits to the world.
The research is sound but some farmers still don’t see the value of trees, saying things like: “Those trees cause me more problems than they’re worth”, “I’ve been taking out those trees so I can farm more ground,” “You can’t eat a tree!” Truth is, when farmers are applying for support for things they want, like fencing, water systems or manure storage, including riparian buffers in their application gives them more points and a greater chance at funding. Plus, they’re paid by the acre for letting us buy and plant those “pesky trees and their protection tubes.”
But in spite of landowner negativity, trees continue to be planted. This important task, undertaken on other people’s land, is carried out by a mysterious force of underappreciated, mostly forgotten, local tree planters (like me) who fight gnats, ticks, and miserable planting sites to create a greener future for the next generation.
“Tree planting is always a utopian enterprise, it seems to me; a wager on a future the planter doesn’t necessarily expect to witness.” – Michael Pollan
There’s something about slogging through wet areas with a pail full of trees, a shovel and 50 pounds of stakes, weed mats and tubes that can change your attitude about folks working, or volunteering for this reverent, holistic work. My education is also enhanced by field people who point out the value of habitat creation and stream dynamics while I dig holes. By some strange magic, I feel like Dr. Seuss’s, tree-hugging Lorax. “It’s not about what it is, it’s about what it can become.”
I marvel at the vigor of tree planting crews, like the Upper Susquehanna Coalition’s Buffer team and other organizations, that I have worked with or witnessed from my staging area. They remind me of the Civilian Conservation Corps who were credited with renewing the nation’s decimated forests and stopping soil erosion during the dustbowl by planting an estimated three billion trees between 1933 and 1942, a legacy that lives on in the counties I now work in.
These current tree soldiers not only painstakingly plant, they must assess environmental needs, craft planting plans, wade through governmental agency red-tape, maintain sites, monitor yearly, fundraise and tell their story about the mission so they are not forgotten. In the era of global Climate Change and resiliency measures, the tree planter’s charge, whether individual or in collective organizations, has never been more important to the sanctity of the earth and its citizens.
When I actively participate in tree planting at my own farm, or at others, and get to witness the before and after effects, I realize it’s a noble path even without the kind of financial reward that would spur many to care. But I think we should care, and care deeply about these so-called useless trees, scrubs, fens, grasslands and watersheds. The environmental attributes of species diversity within a landscape can never be wholly measured in dollars. For me the joy of hearing a frog, catching a fish or taking a nap under the shade of a tree is priceless.
This month my family welcomed a new baby girl into this world. In honoring my fellow tree planters, today, I planted a tree for my granddaughter, Emmie. It’s a gesture for the future, where we can sit in the shade and ponder life’s simple pleasures: clean water, song birds, and stable, erosion-free streambanks.