116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Former choir teacher now works ‘for the tree canopy of Iowa’
CEDAR RAPIDS - Nick McGrath, 32, was a middle school choir teacher when his career took a surprise detour after he had worked a seasonal job at a Marion gardening center.
There, the Cedar Rapids resident 'absolutely fell in love” with the work and quickly went from the guy watering trees to the guy ordering them. Fast forward several years, and now he is helping Iowa communities pick trees to plant after the Aug. 10 derecho devastated a tree canopy that had taken generations to grow.
McGrath in January started in a joint position with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and local nonprofit Trees Forever, funded by the U.S. Forest Service and the state, as a community disaster recovery coordinator based in Marion. He works with derecho-affected communities to help them access resources they need to recover from damage stemming from trees lost in the storm.
The foundation of his passion for nature was laid as a child through involvement with the Eagle Scouts, and his whole family loved to travel and go tent camping, he said.
'It was kind of a great combination of all of the odd jobs I may have held in the past - garden center, educator, athletic coach - with having all of those ties to community as well as the plant knowledge needed to carry out this position,” McGrath said of his interest in his new role.
He's working on outreach to the 293 communities that the Iowa DNR has identified as affected by the derecho. Whether it's a city's mayor or parks and recreation department official, he tries to identify someone who can help him learn the extent of the damage. Then he can provide baseline information to coordinate potential grant opportunities, help communities pick out and order trees and answer questions as they contemplate what to do.
McGrath has a tall task ahead of him. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated Iowa's tree canopy at 2.9 million acres before the storm, and the Iowa DNR reported more than 724,000 acres - about 25 percent of the state's urban forest - were downed in the derecho.
'I feel like I work for the tree canopy of Iowa,” McGrath said.
Lessons from tornado
Jill Johnson, the Midwest urban forestry coordinator with the Forest Service, said McGrath's job is a fairly unusual one in the region, and potentially in the country. The only other such position in the region was created to help Joplin, Mo., recover from an EF5 multiple-vortex tornado that struck in 2011.
Johnson toured the Iowa storm aftermath last summer and said it was the most significant tree damage she had seen in a geographic area in about the 18 years she's held her Midwest role.
Johnson said the coordinator role in Joplin made recovery efforts there more efficient. In Joplin, she said it was helpful to have this coordinator there to fill knowledge gaps and to provide technical expertise, coordinate volunteer efforts and donations, help with replanting logistics and listen to community needs and communicate those to other organizations.
The Iowa DNR team agreed, and with a proven history of successful collaboration with Trees Forever, the position came to life.
Those who worked in Joplin found the role to be such a strong model for community recovery, she said, that it was extended beyond its initial two-year timeline.
'You have to recover from this tree loss and help people keep as much canopy as they can that's still safe - it has to be safe for them, has to be structurally sound and balanced,” Johnson said. 'But you also need to replant for those trees that have been gone ... but then also, the recovery process for humans often involves replanting. It's that feeling that people get from regreening and replanting, even if they're not going to be around to see the tree back at the same size as it was, that there's a real healing there.”
‘long time to recover'
Emma Hannigan, an urban forestry coordinator with the Iowa DNR, said it was apparent soon after the derecho that data from an aerial assessment as well as direct follow-up to communities through a coordinator role would be key to Iowa's recovery.
Larger cities typically have a forester on staff and crews to support work focused on trees, but smaller communities often rely on volunteer efforts to recover. Some cities like Cedar Rapids are preparing to replant this spring, but other communities may be in a different stage of recovery and feel hesitant to replant again given the damage fallen trees may have caused. The Iowa DNR wants to help people understand the benefits of trees and their true impact on a community.
'We're really wanting to set it up so that we can continue to help communities past two years, because trees are such a long-term component and for what we've lost, it's going to take a long time to recover,” Hannigan said.
Trees Forever Founding President Shannon Ramsay said this position represents a partnership to bring more help to the area.
Over time, she said McGrath can also use mapping data once it is available to focus more on where to replant trees. He already has helped order trees for distribution events, Ramsay said, and she sees coordination with nurseries being a key part of his role in the future so they can supply trees that match what the community wants.
'Nick McGrath has the knowledge and expertise we needed to help procure quality native trees early, help target needs and assist small towns and neighborhoods,” Ramsay said.
McGrath said he wants to empower people to strategically plant trees and equip residents with knowledge to keep those trees alive and healthy for generations.
'It's for communities 50 years down the road, 100 years down the road,” McGrath said. 'I'm not going to reap the benefit of a new linden outside my house, but maybe my daughter will someday. That's pretty neat.”
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