At the Alliance, we consider volunteer tree plantings to be a critical part of our work to restore the Chesapeake Bay watershed; the fight to reforest our landscape begins and ends with our communities welcoming trees and wanting more. And there’s no better way to create forest enthusiasts than to get people involved in planting them! This made our decision to cancel our volunteer plantings in the spring due to COVID-19 extra painful; not only were projects being delayed, but progress seemed to be too. We are ecstatic to report however, that we eased back into volunteer tree plantings this fall with great success!

A group of York County Master Watershed Stewards planted 300 trees at a park in early October. The soil was dry but our spirits were high! (Photo by Rebecca Lauver)

We certainly made the right decision to cancel our spring volunteer plantings under the immense uncertainty in the early days of the pandemic, but as time went on and we learned more about the virus, it seemed like tree planting may actually be one of the safest things to do. Tree planting obviously happens outside and our trees are never closer than 10 feet apart, so volunteers are automatically socially distant. Requiring masks made the endeavor even safer, and we asked volunteers to bring their own tools and gloves, meaning there wasn’t even secondary contact via surfaces that had been touched. We of course took chemical defense steps too, providing hand sanitizer and thoroughly disinfecting tools that were borrowed. And although open invitations to tree plantings are ideal for the community impact, we kept this fall’s plantings capped at small numbers and limited invitations to involved groups, like the congregation of the church property where we planted, or the Master Watershed Stewards group who first suggested that we plant at their local park. Here in Pennsylvania, we like to start fall plantings in mid-late October, but this year we finished by then to avoid the potential autumn surge in COVID cases that was forecasted by experts. Our goal was to hold a few events where not only did everyone go home safe, but everyone went home feeling safe. Now that we have wrapped up the season, I think we pulled that off.

Volunteers planted over 3,500 trees to reforest 19 acres across 12 sites in south-central Pennsylvania. I was hoping that these plantings would be something that felt normal again, but what happened was much closer to extraordinary. In a fraught time, people came together to make their world a better place. Reforestation is not an exercise in instant gratification, but in hope. And choosing to leave home to go work hard in the mud during a pandemic is a radical act of hope. I haven’t been optimistic about much in quite a while, but getting back to volunteer plantings has been a much-needed reminder that we can overcome just about anything if we do it together.