Trees Forever CEO discusses efforts to 'ReLeaf' across Linn County

Nonprofit working with Cedar Rapids to replant trees lost to derecho

Bill Blackburn of Coralville hauls tree limbs damaged in the derecho Aug. 17 at Oakhill Cemetery in Cedar Rapids. Trees
Bill Blackburn of Coralville hauls tree limbs damaged in the derecho Aug. 17 at Oakhill Cemetery in Cedar Rapids. Trees Forever is working with the city of Cedar Rapids to plant trees to replace those lost in the Aug. 10 storm. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Linn County communities are swiftly beginning work to replant trees after the Aug. 10 derecho destroyed much of the area’s lush tree canopy.

The city of Cedar Rapids has partnered with local nonprofit Trees Forever for its ReLeaf initiative, a multimillion-dollar effort that will span several years to plant trees.

In addition to private fundraising, the city — having lost at least 65 percent of its tree canopy — also plans to contribute funds each year. The city also plans to hire a manager for the ReLeaf program who will serve as a liaison with Trees Forever.

Here’s what Shannon Ramsay, the organization’s chief executive officer, has to say about the partnership:

Q: Since the announcement of the ReLeaf campaign, how much money has Trees Forever raised to put toward replenishing the city’s tree canopy and how many contributions have been made so far?

A: Our Planting Hope campaign goal is no less than $5 million, but most elected officials and experts are saying it will take a lot more. We do not talk about how much we’ve raised in campaigns until we are about 65 to 70 percent to goal, so no reporting now.

The need is huge, and we are so grateful for many gifts from individuals. They have been from $25 to $5,000. We are grateful for our tree adoption sponsors like Cedar Rapids Bank & Trust and for special fundraisers like the one KCCK did with its members.


Q: Why is it important to have a plan now to replant these trees? How does the community benefit from having a lush tree canopy?

A: Trees save energy, but perhaps even more important is that they restore us. Walking down a tree-lined street or in a city park with trees lowers our blood pressure, lessens stress and provide fresh air to our lungs. Just to mention a few benefits.

The city of Cedar Rapids planning process will take months, and there will be opportunities for public engagement in the process. We want to encourage attendance at the Our Woodland Legacy Symposium on Dec. 10, featured on our website. Jeff Speck, the renowned planner we have hired to do the Cedar Rapids plan, will be one of our keynote speakers.

Q: What opportunities and unexpected rewards does this recovery present?

A: One thing people have learned with the derecho is they cannot take trees for granted. And many people have been saying that to us: ‘We took trees for granted, we took our trees for granted.’ And who would have ever thought they would be gone in a one-hour storm? So it is an opportunity for people to really get focused on trees, learn more, learn how to care for them, learn what species we should be planting and what they do.

Q: How do you think the community has taken trees for granted?

A: Usually when people say that to me, they’re talking about the trees around their home or on their street. People often will describe to me, ‘You know, I would drive home every evening after work and I’m just used to these gorgeous trees along the street and ... around the homes, and they’re all gone.’ That’s the kind of thing people will say: ‘You know, I just never dreamed that we would lose them. They were there forever.’ And people also say, ‘That’s why I bought that house. I bought my house because it was surrounded by trees.’

Q: How can the city and Trees Forever prioritize equity in its replanting efforts? Which areas are particularly in need of some attention in these replanting efforts?

Equity can be mapped on a (geographic information system) layer. You can look at “blighted” areas of any city, and see how canopy has been unevenly distributed. We will prioritize and do our best to replant in an equitable way. Trees Forever is learning from Calgary, Canada, Sacramento Tree Foundation, Galveston, Texas, and others on major replanting efforts after storms and challenges.


Cedar Rapids is taking a ... cutting-edge approach to the ground teams that they’re doing with the Climate Action Plan, where they’re going out and going into the neighborhoods, and so that’s the kind of public input we need to overlap with maps. Sometimes in less wealthy neighborhoods, people don’t even — it’s like it’s the last thing on their list and it’s almost like it’s annoying to have to talk about something like that: Do I really want a tree? Do I need a tree? They don’t understand all the benefits.

Q: What are some ways people can get involved to help regrow the city’s trees?

A: We just distributed in Cedar Rapids 1,200 trees through residential adoption, which “sold out” well in advance of the dates they were handed out. These will be followed up with reminders to water, mulch and care for trees. We plan to hold one in Marion in the spring and more in Cedar Rapids. For smaller communities, our plan is to provide funding and on-site assistance.

Trees Forever, the city of Cedar Rapids, Marion and Linn County will work together to ask the state for funding for all derecho-hit communities. Obviously the area was hit the hardest, and should receive the most benefit.

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