116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Home / News / Environmental News
Two years after derecho, replanting efforts focusing on private property grow roots
Many C.R. residents taking initiative since the derecho
Brittney J. Miller
Aug. 7, 2022 6:00 am
CEDAR RAPIDS — When David Maier emerged from his home in southeast Cedar Rapids on Aug. 10, 2020, he found the tree canopy in tatters.
Mature trees that shielded historic homes for decades had toppled to the ground after losing a battle with the wind. Neighbors armed with chainsaws soon flocked the streets, filling the air with the rumble of shredding wood.
“It looked like a war zone,” said Maier, a 54-year-old finance manager. “It was just complete and utter devastation.”
Gusts reaching 140 mph tore through Cedar Rapids that fateful day. Every city block sustained damage. Chunks were torn from homes, businesses and infrastructure. Crops bowed to the storm’s dominance. One of the many lasting legacies of the storm was its brutal punch to Cedar Rapids’ canopy: It wiped out an estimated 65 percent of the city’s trees.
To help restore the canopy, the Cedar Rapids City Council approved in February a $37 million ReLeaf plan — a collaboration between the city and the nonprofit Trees Forever that aims to plant more than 42,000 trees on public land over 10 years.
The public sections of the ReLeaf plan are relatively well-defined, guided by numbers and locations of tree loss, says Kent VonBehren, Trees Forever’s ReLeaf program manager. But it will take an added focus to the plan’s other component — the private properties — to fully revive Cedar Rapids’ tree canopy.
“A lot of the attention so far has been on the public side of the plan,” VonBehren said. “One of the things that's keeping me up at night is how we’re going to do this on the private side.”
Of the 670,000 trees in Cedar Rapids estimated to have succumbed to the derecho, about 85 percent were on private property. As the city hurried to create a recovery plan, several organizations quickly launched tree adoptions, including Trees Forever and Monarch Research. Those adoptions continued over the following seasons.
Now, two years after Cedar Rapids was robbed of much of its precious greenery, both Trees Forever and Monarch Research are inching their roots deeper into communities to replenish bare private properties. To fill the graves of the half-a-million trees around homes, businesses and open spaces, the organizations are leaning on perhaps the most powerful tool of all: the community members themselves.
“It's going to require a level of involvement from citizenship — beyond probably anything that we've done,” VonBehren said.
Neighborhood tree captains incoming
Trees Forever has facilitated just over 10,000 tree adoptions in the area since the derecho, said VonBehren, who estimated that 80 percent have ended up at Cedar Rapids residences.
Those distributions are available to those who can take advantage, VonBehren said. But some residents might not be able to participate, for example, if they don’t have cars, don’t have time to retrieve the trees or can’t afford to care for them. And once the trees leave the adoption sites, their final destinations are unknown, making it unclear if they’re going to the homes especially in need.
This fall, Trees Forever is testing a more neighborhood-focused and community-driven approach inspired by a fully fledged version now thriving in Nashville, said Dina Haveric, the incoming ReLeaf outreach and communication manager. The organization will appoint neighborhood tree captains to help distribute free trees and ensure that private canopies can bloom where they’re most needed.
“The tree adoptions have been great. It was quick and go,” VonBehren said. “But now, we think we've tapped into something that we can do even better.”
The pilot program will focus on an unannounced neighborhood in southwest Cedar Rapids. Once appointed and equipped, tree captains will go door-to-door and ask how many trees their neighbors may need. That number will be submitted to Trees Forever, which will bring the trees for a distribution day. Once the program is in full force, there will be 30 to 80 trees per neighborhood per delivery day, Haveric said.
This week, Trees Forever will be recruiting one or two tree captains who will help lead the pilot neighborhood, VonBehren said. The program will ramp up in the spring to permeate other Cedar Rapids neighborhoods identified by ReLeaf as having the greatest needs.
“We’ll provide the trees, the guidance and the information, but it's largely neighbors helping neighbors,” VonBehren said.
Turning co-workers into ambassadors
Since its pilot planting season — which launched a month after the derecho — Monarch Research has been a major provider of trees for private landowners in Linn County.
To get trees on private properties, the nonprofit pairs with for-profit companies that purchase trees for their employees. It also teams up with nonprofits who either distribute trees to their employees or among the communities they serve. And, starting this past spring, Monarch Research gave private landowners the opportunity purchase a minimum of 25 trees directly from it.
Now, Monarch Research is entering a more advanced stage of its plans, said co-founder Clark McLeod, using what he calls the multiplier effect where past tree recipients pay the action forward.
“A number of those employees have already gotten all the trees they need,” he said. “We offer (more) trees to those employees so that they'll take them and help other people — their next-door neighbor, their friend, their church.”
Monarch Research has always encouraged participants to share the love by giving trees to neighbors. But starting in the spring planting season, individuals getting trees through their employer can sign up to be a tree ambassador volunteer. It’s a commitment to take care of the trees and find them a good home, McLeod said, as well as following up with the landowner for any planting and watering assistance.
Formalizing the process will help Monarch Research know for sure where its trees end up, and the nonprofit will send surveys to check in on trees about a year after their distribution.
Ahead of its fourth planting season that’s currently underway, the nonprofit planted about 42,600 trees. Forty-four organizations have participated, along with 96 schools and more than 100 woodland owners. By the end of this year, Monarch Research is projected to have distributed about 55,000 trees total. Its long-term goal is to plant 150,000 trees by 2026.
Residents leaving a local legacy
A few weeks following the storm, after being bombarded with before-and-after photos of tree canopies now gone with the wind, Maier and his husband decided to do something about it.
“I said, ‘Look, we're done grieving. We're going to move forward,’” Maier said. “‘What can we do as residents, as community members and as people who have a network to help make a difference?’” They joined a wave of residents who are going beyond replanting their own trees and helping more trees find new homes.
For instance, after the derecho deformed most of the voluminous bushes in her yard, 37-year-old Katie Fisher of Cedar Hills decided to revive what she calls her “woods in the middle of Cedar Rapids.”
Drawn to Trees Forever’s subsidized trees, she got in line for a distribution day — and she ended up leaving with trees for both her yard and her parents.
“It was exciting to go through the pickup line and see how many cars were in line for trees,” said Fisher, a mortgage lender. “We planted three trees on two different properties in the same day. It was fun to make the space our own.”
Other residents banded together with their neighbors to take full advantage of tree distribution opportunities, like 54-year-old Douglas Wagner of southeast Cedar Rapids near Brucemore.
After moving into his home a year after the derecho, the radio host was looking for a cost-effective way to bring life back to his yard and neighborhood that were once coated with trees. Monarch Research’s opportunities for woodland owners to purchase trees piqued his interest — but the order minimum of 25 trees would be a tight fit in his backyard.
“The guy who mows my grass would kill me,” Wagner said with a chuckle. Instead, he extended an invite to several his neighbors to band together on the purchase and share the resulting trees.
Seeing healthy tree canopies in other cities brings tears to his eyes, Wagner said, and he’s excited to infuse his area with a bit more critical native habitat for critters.
“If you're planting something that's an ornamental tree, you might as well be planting a Styrofoam cylinder. It's inert as far as nature is concerned because there's nothing living off of it,” he said. “That's one of the big things, is trying to bring more of those native trees back into the biosphere, in the neighborhood and in our backyard.”
As for Maier and his husband, they started their efforts within their own neighborhood, raising money for stump removal and buying native trees from local nurseries. But they soon also focused on reforesting the nearby Wellington Heights neighborhood.
The duo partnered with Monarch Research and the Linn County Tree Equity Program, which planted 1,200 trees on private properties last spring, and created the Wellington Heights Tree Equity Program. They raised money for the Wellington Heights neighborhood association, and Monarch Research donated trees.
Between the spring and fall of 2021, Maier and his husband planted more than 100 trees in the Brucemore and Wellington Heights areas, both on private and public property. They also sponsored residents for the Trees Forever TreeKeepers program for tree-care training.
Maier said his replanting efforts have slowed because he’s focused on keeping his local fleet of trees alive. Two years after the derecho, he still spends four to six hours a week watering trees that aren’t on his property, which he considers his “babies.”
And, come the holiday season, he plans on decorating the fledgling trees with Christmas ornaments — just like he did last year.
“I'll continue to do this every year,” he said. “And I'm looking forward to the day when I can't reach any of the branches on the trees.”
Comments: (319) 398-8370; firstname.lastname@example.org