IOWA DERECHO 2020

Replanting the landscape: Cedar Rapids companies help employees and their yards recover from the derecho

Fiberutilities Group's Kyle Trampe helps unload and sort the 250 trees the company purchased for the #x201d;Planting For
Fiberutilities Group’s Kyle Trampe helps unload and sort the 250 trees the company purchased for the ”Planting Forward” program. The trees were delivered Oct. 14 to Clearwater Farm in Marion. (Photo by Fiberutilities Group.)
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The Gazette is working with the Linn Landowner Forum to present a weekly series of columns about elements landowners should consider when replacing trees and plants lost in the Aug. 10 derecho. The series will focus on recovery, the importance of native plants and other topics. Fifth in a series.

Six Linn County companies are helping employees rebuild the tree canopy in their yards after the Aug. 10 derecho, which has been named the costliest thunderstorm in modern U.S. history, according to the Washington Post.

The companies — Fiberutilities Group, Bowker Mechanical Contractors, Cedar Rapids Bank & Trust, Iowa Glass Depot, McGrath Family Dealerships and NXT Bank — are providing their employees with native trees and shrubs for their home landscapes through a new program called “Planting Forward.”

The result? More than 1,000 native species have been planted this fall in Eastern Iowa to help restore the devastated landscape.

The “Planting Forward” program was envisioned by Monarch Research Project Treasurer Steve Knapp, who serves as president and chief financial officer of FG, a local network services company that employs more than 100 people, including 30 in Cedar Rapids.

In his work with the monarch project, Knapp learned about the importance of native species to our ecosystem. He knew that the derecho destroyed decades of tree growth and that many damaged species were Iowa natives like oaks, which support 534 species of insects, birds and wildlife.

Knapp proposed an idea to the FG employees: Each employee could select, at no charge, six native trees or shrubs to plant in his or her yard. Each employee also would be given two oaks to help a neighbor or family member. Lastly, employees were asked to identify community organizations that would benefit from a donation of trees.

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“It’s in our DNA to find opportunity amid chaos,” Knapp said. “Having our group plant new trees and shrubs feels like soul care, positive energy that is really needed.”

A quick survey of employees confirmed that Knapp was on the right track: 78 percent were interested in trees for their own use, 96 percent would like to share trees with friends or family, and 92 percent said they were willing to assist with the community initiative.

University of Delaware Professor Doug Tallamy, who delivered the keynote address at the 2019 Linn Landowner Forum and will return to the event in 2021, helped identify the most ecologically impactful trees to offer through the program.

Seven of these trees were oak varieties, because oak is the most prominent keystone species in the Midwest. Keystone species “have a disproportionately large effect on the abundance and diversity of other species in the ecosystem,” according to Tallamy. “Without keystone plants, the food web all but falls apart.”

In total, the company ordered 250 trees, averaging 6- to 10-feet tall, for the “Planting Forward” program. Forty trees were donated to entities like the city of Ely, Coe College and Cedar Valley Humane Society.

FG shared with employees videos and other resources to ensure that trees are planted in proper and safe locations. The company also provided mulch and planting assistance, if requested.

And because newly planted trees need plenty of water and protection from predators like deer, employees received information on how to maintain their new trees.

The company invested about $20,000 in native trees for the effort.

After seeing how receptive FG employees were to the program, Monarch Research Project leaders started brainstorming on how to expand the program to other companies.

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Companies want to support their employees and their community during hard times. Helping employees recover from the derecho’s significant environmental destruction also benefits their home’s value, while being a win for Linn County and our environment. Plus, we saw this as a terrific team-building opportunity.

We contacted several companies about piloting the program. Five signed on immediately.

Our goal was to give the companies everything needed to implement the “Planting Forward” program, while encouraging them to structure the tree giveaway to fit their own culture, budget and employee needs.

Employee participation across the six companies averaged 70 percent, and companies spent between $100 and $600 per employee.

McGrath Family Dealerships, for example, surveyed 186 employees. Of those, 130 were interested in trees for their homes. The company ordered two or three trees for each of those employees, returning 300 native trees to Eastern Iowa.

In all, we estimate about 1,000 people were helped by the six companies that participated in “Planting Forward.”

We invite business owners to host their own “Planting Forward” program next spring. If your company is interested in participating, please contact me (cmcleod@fiberutilities.com), Jim Hoffman (jimhoffman2014@gmail.com) or Hilery Livengood (hilerylivengood@gmail.com). We look forward to working with you to support the recovery of our native habitat.

Clark McLeod is a lifelong Iowan who has spent four decades working to build and grow the Cedar Rapids community. He serves as chief executive officer and president of Monarch Research Project, a nonprofit seeking to add pollinator habitat throughout Linn County and reestablish the monarch population, establishing a model for the nation.

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