116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Whenever Robyn Clark-Bridges and her family have moved, they choose their houses because of the trees.
She grew up in the Minneapolis area with a mother who loved trees. As a child, she once did an experiment for class in which she planted maple seeds around her mother’s yard and talked to some of the trees. Only the two she spoke with survived.
“I’ve always loved trees,” Clark-Bridges said.
So when Marion-based nonprofit Trees Forever piloted a new Neighborhood Tree Captain program, Clark-Bridges jumped at the opportunity to be the first tree captain.
She’s taken Trees Forever’s TreeKeeper classes, a training program that teaches people more about urban tree planting and prepares them to become stronger voices for trees in their neighborhoods, so this was a natural next step.
Kent VonBehren, Trees Forever’s ReLeaf manager, and staff earlier this year conceptualized a program that would empower residents directly to become advocates for replanting trees on their own private properties after the August 2020 derecho downed about two-thirds of the city’s tree canopy.
The new program is part of the ReLeaf initiative, a partnership between the city of Cedar Rapids and Trees Forever that outlines a plan to equitably reforest the city with native species over the next 10 years. The plan calls for about 42,000 trees to be replanted on public parks and in rights of way, and also provides guidance for private landowners looking to replenish their lost trees.
What’s happened since?
After the Cedar Rapids City Council in February adopted the ReLeaf plan, the city and Trees Forever got to work on more clearly laying out public replanting side of the plan.
The plan included a broad vision for private tree replanting, which is where VonBehren said he is now working to fill the gaps. Of the estimated 670,000 trees that were damaged or destroyed, about 85 percent were on private land, so that’s where VonBehren said he is shifting focus.
“We can't plant them all,” VonBehren said. “But we can work with the community and get trees to them, and do it in a way that's not just distributing trees but also follows the mandate of the plan, which is to educate and inform and build community along the way.”
Trees Forever has accomplished that through tree adoptions, where the organization has distributed more than 10,000 trees so far since the derecho.
To move into an effort that is fueled at the neighborhood level, VonBehren said Trees Forever’s new Neighborhood Tree Captain program relies on a self-identified representative from a neighborhood to canvass their own area and spread the word about tree adoptions and replanting opportunities. The pilot was underwritten by a grant from the U.S. Forest Service.
“A lot of times, blue-collar neighborhoods are overlooked when there are giveaway programs, so I was thrilled to help my neighborhood out that way,” Clark-Bridges said.
There was a community gathering in Clark-Bridges’ backyard, a demonstration of tree planting and eventually a distribution event where about 50 trees were given for free to people who signed up in the neighborhood near Jones Park, off Bowling Street and Wilson Avenue SW.
“It was just a really cool event,” VonBehren said. “It really felt nice, and you could tell there were some neighbors who hadn't met each other before and there was that community building that happened, too.”
VonBehren said it was an area targeted by the ReLeaf plan, and Trees Forever will continue to use the plan’s equity-centered prioritization system to collaborate with future neighborhoods under this program. He’d like to ramp up to work with tree captains in five to 10 neighborhoods next year.
Clark-Bridges said she lost a 60- or 70-year-old elm tree and a silver maple that her daughter had planted to the derecho. She was eager to replant, but said she encountered many neighbors who declined to replant trees for now.
Some feared the destruction that mature trees could cause in another natural disaster in the future after grappling with downed trees and property damage in the 2020 storm. But for the rest of her neighbors, she said she didn’t have to twist any arms to encourage people to replant.
“It started to engender a sense of community so it wasn’t just an anonymous, faceless organization who had this grant and was going to bestow it on us,” Clark-Bridges said. “This was letting people know that if they wanted this opportunity, they could have it.”
Trees Forever launched another program to promote private tree replanting. Eligible people could sign up for either a $100 or $250 tree voucher, which can be used through May. Five local nurseries have agreed to participate. The vouchers require the chosen trees to come from the ReLeaf list, which outlines which native species should be used.
Trees Forever anticipates holding future information sessions before the spring, but dates are not scheduled yet. People may visit treesforever.org/voucher-program for more information and to check for future sessions.
Grace Kann, a Cornell College environmental studies student, had worked on a similar program in Dubuque and approached Trees Forever with the idea while working on her senior capstone project.
“It drives traffic to these local nurseries, but they're helping us by educating residents when they're there,” VonBehren said.
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