Heritage Forests: healing the earth with trees

Heritage Forests: healing the earth with trees – tree planting program by American Forests

Bill Tikkala

Approaching the million-tree mark, this growing program is bringing new life to damaged lands and convincing people young and old that they can make a difference.

It is but a small seedling nestled among hundreds of other seedlings in an area once considered unlikely for rebirth as forest. Patted into place by hands representing thousands of other hands, the young tree is a testament to a growing concern: healing the earth. As it grows, so too grow the hopes of citizens young and old who say we must leave the land a little better for those who come after us.

The faces behind AMERICAN FORESTS’ Heritage Forests program are as varied as its trees and the locales it’s regreening: a Kentucky couple requesting plantings in lieu of wedding gifts, a grief-stricken woman remembering a friend who had lost a baby, hundreds of volunteers planting ponderosa pine and bareroot chokecherry on fire-ravaged national-forest land in Colorado.

AMERICAN FORESTS created Heritage Forests in 1990 as a rural component to its Global ReLeaf program. Global ReLeaf is an international public education and action campaign to make people aware of ways they can help mitigate the causes of global environmental problems. Heritage Forests provides the link between private donors and public lands needing restoration.

The goal of the program is to heal damaged ecosystems, and to that end it considers only proposals for repairing “orphan lands” that are accessible to the public. These areas, described by professionals as “tough,” are ones that are not scheduled for any kind of government improvement. Without help, they likely would remain barren or damaged for some time to come.

Unfortunately, there is no shortage of potential sites. Man’s abuse and misuse of the land have resulted in numerous potential projects that meet the criteria for a Heritage Forest planting. In the quest for food and fiber, man has cut down, cultivated, manipulated, and often abandoned thousands of acres of forested lands, even land with only marginal potential for those uses. And forest fires, insects, and drought continue to wreak havoc from coast to coast.

When Hurricane Hugo swept through South Carolina in 1989, it destroyed thousands of trees and years of intensive forest cultural practices on the Francis Marion National Forest. It decimated seed orchards, which help provide for the next generation of genetically improved seedlings, and severely set back the nation’s second largest population of the rare red-cockaded woodpecker. A Global ReLeaf Heritage Forests grant allowed forest officials to plant 125,000 longleaf pine seedlings. That, in turn, allowed the National Forest to help re-establish the longleaf pine-wiregrass ecosystem that has experienced a severe decline in acreage along its native East Coast habitat.

In Arizona, 90 percent of the presettlement riparian areas have been lost to development. A Heritage Forest project near Mayer will begin to restore one of North America’s most endangered forest communities: the cottonwood/willow riparian gallery forest. Andy Sudbrock, manager of the Agua Fria Restoration Project on YMCA’s Chauncey Ranch, says his work at the Heritage Forest site is healthy not only for the land but for himself as well. It’s satisfying to put back some of the components of a natural forest community and to see that community reestablished, he said. Sudbrock is working to protect and restore a portion of the cottonwood/willow community, and in the process to preserve wildlife habitat and provide opportunities for environmental education and volunteer participation.

The Heritage Forests grant for the Chauncey Ranch work supplemented money donated by students at Arizona’s Prescott College. Sudbrock, who graduated from Prescott last December, gave a presentation to students last fall on the site and on riparian forests in general.

Afterward, the Student Union voted to spend part of that year’s budget to get the project started. They decided “they would rather give $2,000 to start a restoration project that they could be involved in and would last….than just blow the money on a band and a dance, a one-time shot,” Sudbrock said. Since then, the Student Union has funded several other conservation projects.

A testament to the emotions that the idea of Heritage Forests stir is the fact that the three-year-old program expects to plant its millionth tree in 1993.

Equally remarkable are the geographic spread, the variety of local partnerships involved, the diversity of species being planted, the variety of purposes for the projects, and the sources of cost-sharing funds for those Heritage Forests already established or in some stage of development.

“It’s real positive all the way around,” said Lisa Harrison, mail-order manager for Cooking Light magazine. Cooking Light this year planted trees on behalf of 29 advertisers in its catalog section. Although she describes their efforts as “a drop in the bucket,” she says the idea has pleased both advertisers and readers of the healthy lifestyles magazine.

“Our readers care about the environment,” Harrison said. “It’s the perfect promotion for us.”

And although concern for the environment is a common thread binding the sites together, the reasons behind establishing the forests and their eventual uses are as varied as the locales.

For natives on the “Big Island” of Hawaii, preserving a portion of the Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge means more than just planting the hardwood Acacia koa. It means preserving their heritage.

Koa, a native species, is commonly used for carving canoes and artwork, and native Hawaiians “see part of the culture being taken away” by development, says Lori Eakin, secretary for Big Island Resource Conservation & Development, which is overseeing the project.

Volunteers have ranged in age from 16 to 60 and came from as far as the islands of Maui and Oahu to help plant 18,000 seedlings this year.

The first rainforest to receive Heritage Forest funding, the Hakalau project will attempt to increase the natural habitats of several threatened or endangered species and re-establish a migration corridor for native bird species. Over five years, 126,000 koa seedlings will be planted on 490 acres of former pasture-land and overstory established to recapture the site from non-native species. The project has also received significant financial support from Scholastic Books through the National Wildlife Federation.

In southeast Arizona, a unique four-way partnership is underway between the Safford Chapter of Future Farmers of America, AMERICAN FORESTS, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and sponsor Robert Gardner of New York. The five-year project calls for seed to be collected from species that are hard to get commercially, then sown in the students’ school nursery and planted along streams and riparian terraces.

“We are using seed gathered from this area to ensure that the plants are adapted to local conditions and seasonal timing,” said Mike McQueen, district riparian coordinator.

Though almost all Heritage Forests projects are on public land, not all are done with an eye toward predominant use by humans. The Bureau of Land Management is restoring native ponderosa pine to a portion of Muddy Mountain near Casper, Wyoming, burned in 1985 by the Little Red Creek wildfire. Because it is a favorite winter roosting site for American bald eagles, this is one area planters would just as soon the public admire from afar. The 60-acre site is to be planted over four years.

So what does it take to create a Heritage Forest? A lot of ground is covered before seedlings are ever planted. Each Heritage Forest proposal is reviewed to determine what is to be planned, how much funding is needed, and who will be involved. Site sponsors must demonstrate local support for the project and consult with tree-planting professionals to ensure, as Heritage Forests officials say, “the right tree in the right place at the right time and in the right way.” Then, hope that Mother Nature is kind with timely waterings.

At present there are 18 Heritage Forests–reaching from Hawaii and California to New York and Florida–and the waiting list is lengthy. Requests come in faster than they can be funded. AMERICAN FORESTS has a “secret dream” of one day having a Heritage Forest in all 50 states.

A cross-section of project proposals includes:

* Establishing a basic gene pool to provide seed to reintroduce the prized American chestnut, which succumbed to a deadly blight early in the century.

* Providing a valuable food source for wildlife by restoring acorn- and nut-producing species to a national wildlife refuge island on the Mississippi River.

* Attempting to reestablish the majestic white pine that grew so abundantly in the Lake States at the turn of the century.

* Reestablishing the vanishing white-cedar forest in Delaware.

* Restoring native plant communities on the Kettle Moraine Forest in Wisconsin.

* Partnering with the National Wild Turkey Federation to plant hardwoods on reclaimed strip-mined areas in Ohio.

Since 1990, when jack pine planted on critical Kirtland’s warbler habitat in Michigan became the first Heritage Forest, the program has helped plant nearly 850,000 trees. Corporations use the tree-planting idea as a thank-you. Individuals use it for weddings, birthdays, graduations, and Christmas gifts; about 30 percent of the requests are made in memory of a loved one. As one caller said, “Flowers just don’t last very long, and we want to leave something long-lasting.”

To those in the tree-planting business, three-quarters of a million trees may not seem like that large a number. But for those people who spend today thinking about tomorrow, it proves that big environmental problems can be addressed by “people-sized” actions.

“Expanding our forests is so beneficial to our country,” another donor said in a letter, “and planting trees in the names of our loved ones is such a beautiful way to remember them.”

Bill Tikkala is special projects forester and Michelle Robbins is managing editor, magazines for AMERICAN FORESTS.

Living Legacies

1. AuSable State Forest, Michigan. Jack pine planted as nesting site for the endangered Kirtland’s warbler.

2. Francis Marion National Forest, South Carolina. 125 acres planted with longleaf pine to repair Hurricane Hugo damage.

3. Allegheny National Forest, Pennsylvania. 25 acres planted with red-oak seedlings, replacing those lost to severe drought and gypsy-moth defoliation.

4. Oneida County, New York. Reestablish forest cover on 25 acres of what was once a private farm, to provide a green component to the viewshed.

5. Farragut State Park, Idaho. Restore forest cover on a 500-acre parcel cleared first as an inland naval training base and later for national and international Girl and Boy Scout functions. MasterCard is a major sponsor.

6. Bureau of Land Management’s Indian Creek Recreation Area, near Nevada/California border. 34 acres planted with Jeffrey and pinyon pine to restore scenic quality and wildlife habitat.

7. Near Kellogg, Iowa. 30 acres of green ash, black walnut, red oak, and silver maple planted on a 444-acre farm donated to state with stipulation that a hardwood forest be established in 10 years.

8. Near Casper, Wyoming. Over four years, 60 acres of a wildfire site replanted with ponderosa pine as a winter bald eagle roost.

9. Near Cuba, New Mexico. 20 acres of containerized ponderosa pine planted on cutover homesteaded land.

10. Pike National Forest, Colorado. 140 acres of ponderosa pine and chokecherry planted in area burned in 1989 Berry Fire.

11. Blackwater River State Forest, Florida. Planted 300 acres to help restore endangered longleaf-pine ecosystem.

12. Belleplain State Forest, New Jersey. 100 acres of recreation area and wildlife habitat planted with pitch pine, shortleaf pine, mixed oaks, and sweetgum after gypsy-moth and wildfire damage.

13. Marys River, Nevada. Rebuild endangered Lahontan trout population by restoring riparian hardwood forest on 24 acres.

14. YMCA’s Chauncey Ranch, near Mayer, Arizona. 10 acres planted along Agua Fria to restore endangered cottonwood/willow riparian gallery forest, preserve native wildlife habitat, and offer environmental education and volunteer opportunities.

15. Hakalau Forest, Hawaii. 490 acres planted with native Acacia koa over several years to reestablish a healthy rainforest ecosystem and critical habitat for five species of endangered forest birds.

16. Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana. Restablish forest cover on old dump site, to be used as a recreation area, in proximity to national wild and scenic river.

17. Near Safford, Arizona. Five-year project to repair riparian area by collecting seed of native tree, shrub, and grass to plant on 20 miles of stream and 15 isolated springs.

18. Fairfax County, Virginia. Remove exotic and invasive vegetation to recreate riparian forest and establish wildlife habitat on Difficult Run watershed, a tributary of the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay.

COPYRIGHT 1992 American Forests

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