In 50 years, the Alliance has planted over one million trees! We’re not done yet though, not even close. We have dreams of a heavily forested Chesapeake Bay Watershed, where every town, city, and farm have abundant tree cover. This dream would yield a cleaner Chesapeake Bay and a watershed that is more resilient and hospitable for us humans. A good future is a forested one!

A view from the top of the watershed, in Shenandoah National Park. 58% of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed is forested. But is that enough? Photo by Ryan Davis

Why Forests?

A few hundred years ago (not very long for a blackgum tree), a vast majority of our landscape was forested. As glaciers retreated and the mid-Atlantic began to wake up from the last Ice Age, forests found their footing here and began to affect their environment. They soaked up rain and slowly recharged groundwater, which eventually reached streams clean, cool, and with constant flow. The trees also soaked up carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and stored it (eventually) in the soil, a process that began globally eons before and created the oxygen-rich air that we now enjoy. The seemingly never-ending forest shaded and insulated the ground and streams in the summer months. 

Forests are the ultimate moderating force; they provide microclimates, food, and cover that are somewhat slow to change for as long as they remain forest, which could be millenia. This degree of long-term stability makes forests very hospitable to animals that can over time adapt to just about anything but are quite vulnerable to rapid changes and unpredictability. This extends to humans too. We originated in forests and evolved to our current upright form when ancient climatic changes turned our jungle habitat into a more sparsely-treed savannah. Our big, adept brains allowed us to think, invent, create, and adapt, such that our species spread throughout most of the world. We were able to survive and thrive in most habitats from tundra to deserts, but our species has always been most at home in the woods. 

Humans developed agriculture, trade, and industry, all of which were enabled by forests. Wood has, until very recently, been the source of tools and building materials that allowed us to cultivate fields, build cities, sail around the globe, and travel across continents. For ages it was also our predominant source of fuel for cooking, warmth, manufacturing, and machinery. Forests didn’t just give birth to our species, they fueled our rise as the global society that we have become.

Having building materials, fuel, and space for cities and annual crops seems to be the best-case scenario and would simply require that people retain local forests to sustain a long-term balance between forest cover, agriculture, and development. But our big, adept brains are unfortunately short-lived relative to trees, and we have always struggled to make decisions that would make life harder in the short run but easier in the future.

Agriculture dramatically transformed our species by allowing us to settle a place and accumulate populations, but trade broke our reliance on local resources. The flow of food, goods, resources, and ideas between people undoubtedly launched our species into a new level of civilization. It also allowed us to deplete local natural resources because we could now just import them from elsewhere, a dangerous prospect for a species that doesn’t always prioritize the future. This becomes an acute issue when populations and appetites for consumption balloon, as they have globally in the last century. In 1920, the world population is estimated to have been 1.9 billion people. It is now 7.8 billion. Also, more advanced countries often consume resources disproportionately to our population size. Our use of products extracted from forests goes back as far as when we began to use tools, but the scale of our needs is now unprecedented. The last century also marked a shift away from such a close reliance on forest products, now that we have synthetic materials and fossil fuels. 

Our human nature seems to be catching up to us, however. We’re finding microplastics in an alarming amount of fish, and in the tissues of people here and around the world. And of course the ancient atmospheric carbon that was sequestered in dead old trees (in other words, fossil fuels) has been pumped back into the sky at breakneck speed, sending us careening towards irreversible climate change. And remember how animals are not able to adapt to rapid, unpredictable changes?   

Land use is at play as a threat to our future just as much as pollution is. Much of what was once forests or prairie, the ultimate moderating forces, is now intensive agriculture or development that holds little to no potential for functioning ecosystems. We see this vividly in the Chesapeake, the largest estuary in the US and third largest in the world. When rain falls in our watershed, which is now only 57% forested, it isn’t absorbed but conveyed over land and through pipes, blasting our streams with high volumes of polluted water. In the heat of the summer, which only seems to get longer and more intense each year, our cities and towns bake in the open sun, causing marked dips in human welfare. Many patches of woods that we do have, especially in heavily populated areas, are so heavily invaded by non-native species that they are hardly functioning as habitat. Global data points to the dire reality that our ecosystems are at the brink of abject collapse. And, of course, we need functioning ecosystems to keep us humans alive too.  

Hang in there, dear reader. The story doesn’t close here. We have the ability to change our path forward and shape our future. I choose a forested one.

Ryan, center with the orange shirt, demonstrates how to plant a tree. (Photo by Adam Miller/Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay)

Trees Are the Answer

Our society is starting to see forests as the lifeline that they always have been. Sustainably-managed forests can be sources of renewable materials in perpetuity. Forest products may be long-lasting (the house I’m sitting in is still supported by chestnut beams cut over 120 years ago, for instance), and, unlike synthetic materials, are also non-toxic. Annual grain agriculture will always be an important part of feeding the world, but we’re remembering how to feed our communities with products from the woods. Before agriculture was developed, acorns were likely a predominant human food source worldwide. We can manage diverse forests for production of dozens of native nuts and fruits, while simultaneously protecting and providing shelter, air, and water to us and the many other organisms that hold our food webs together. 

We can’t change the arc of human history, or geopolitics, or global economics. But we can change our own backyards. We can earn the allegiance of our neighbors. We can plant trees where they haven’t stood for 350 years. We can be part of the solution, rather than just a reluctant part of the problem.

So the Alliance is working on increasing and improving our forest cover here in the Chesapeake Watershed. We’re planting individual trees and forests in urban communities, and reforesting as many streamsides and upland fields as landowners volunteer up for planting. We’re assisting landowners in improving the quality of their woods, so that they will remain functioning forests for generations to come. We’re teaching residents about the importance of forests, and reminding them how interesting, important, and awesome trees are. 

500-tree riparian buffer along a trout-friendly creek in southern Pennsylvania. (Photo by Adam Miller/Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay)

Each acre, each management plan, and each mind changed won’t save the world. But it sure does make the world just a bit better, and makes all the difference for that site or person. And if scale got us into this mess, scale can get us out. One project at a time eventually changes an entire landscape. And we’re starting to see it happen. I used to unexpectedly come upon one of my riparian forest buffers while traveling to another site or meeting and rejoice to see a tree planting “in the wild”. Now I pass multiple sites on a single drive, and every planting season they get closer to connecting and providing unbroken protection of their stream.

Even more encouraging is that I frequently see sites that I didn’t plant, and that none of our partners are responsible for either. They must be popping up at the hands of groups we haven’t engaged with yet, or simply by everyday people who have learned what needs to be done and are getting after it. If this isn’t a ray of hope for the future, I don’t know what is. The mission to reforest our watershed is one of building momentum. If there are enough sites to make streamside reforestation normal to see, it will be a matter of time before seeing an unforested stream is abnormal. And eventually, for social pressures to lead all but the most stubborn landowners to agree to a buffer on their own stream. 

It’s the same with lawn conversions, street trees, and forest stewardship. If we can keep up our pace, and continue to help convene, build, lead, and dream, we will find ourselves running out of work to do. In 50 more years, I’ll be in my eighties. By then, I can look forward to catching a trout in any stream in Lancaster County. To enjoying a cool breeze coming through an open window, and hearing dry leaves skitter across the (permeable) sidewalk. To perfect jam recipes with native fruits grown on formerly lifeless lawns. To knowing that my neighbors are protected from heat and air particulates and flooding. If we can keep up our pace, I can look forward to a resilient, safe, equitable, forested future.

Let’s think about the one million trees that the Alliance has planted over the last 50 years. They’ve been hard at work, cooling yards, sheltering streets from rain and sun, feeding bees, birds, and human passersby. They’ve provided refuge and food for wildlife, stabilized imperiled streambanks, and recharged our groundwater. They’ve been tirelessly improving our environment at large, providing year after year for parents, children, and grandchildren. 

There’s a maxim in tree circles that the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, and the second best time to plant a tree is right now. We may not be able to go back in time, but we sure can fight for the future. And we envision a future that is as forested as possible. 

If you’d like to join us in the quest for a forested future, visit the Alliance’s Forests Program page to learn how.