Derecho devastated trees in hours, but reforestation plan will take months

Cedar Rapids will spend much of 2021 drafting replanting blueprint

A new estimate says that Cedar Rapids lost 70 percent of its public tree canopy from the Aug. 10 derecho. Now that winte
A new estimate says that Cedar Rapids lost 70 percent of its public tree canopy from the Aug. 10 derecho. Now that winter is here and the leaves are gone, the damage to trees stands in stark relief against the snow. Photographed Tuesday at Faulkes Heritage Woods in southeast Cedar Rapids. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Tree debris and jagged limbs still line the streets of Linn County communities six months after the derecho’s hurricane-force winds destroyed the canopy that had taken generations to grow.

But there’s good news, Cedar Rapids: “ReLeaf” is on the way.

The Cedar Rapids City Council gave the green light Tuesday to a memorandum of understanding with local nonprofit Trees Forever authorizing a $500,000 contribution to the organization through Dec. 31 to craft an urban reforestation plan for public and private spaces. Officials anticipate the plan will be drafted by October and provide a vision to guide the long-term efforts to reforest the city.

“This is going to be an opportunity for neighbors to work together, to be outside and work together, to rebuild, replant their neighborhoods, and I think that’s going to be really a bright spot as part of this entire effort,” Mayor Brad Hart said.

The storm was particularly devastating to the city’s older trees that provided much of the canopy, Parks and Recreation Director Scott Hock said. The city now estimates a loss of about 70 percent of its tree canopy. That encompasses about 6,000 public trees.

“Our goal is to bring it back in the right way,” he said of the lost urban forest, “and that takes some planning and some effort to make sure that we’re doing it correctly when we bring these new plantings back in.”

Shannon Ramsay, the Trees Forever founding president, said the plan will include updates to the tree inventory as well as designs for all neighborhoods and 38 of the city’s approximately 100 parks.

The city, which will soon hire a ReLeaf manager to help with the program, and a Trees Forever team will work with international city planning expert Jeff Speck and local landscape architecture firm Confluence to create the plan. The group also will engage the public through input sessions, virtual meetings and polling.


Ramsay said she hopes the plan will give a blueprint for a long-term effort to press on beyond the fifth year of recovery — the point at which other communities that have dealt with widespread tree loss have struggled to maintain momentum, she said.

Crews have hauled about 3.3 million cubic yards of debris so far in the city, and cleanup will continue into the spring. Debris removal costs make up most of the rough estimate of $100 million of expenses associated with derecho recovery so far, City Manager Jeff Pomeranz has said.

While cleanup is ongoing, Ramsay said Trees Forever will hold tree adoptions and other planting efforts this spring and fall. Through some events last fall, the organization already helped community members plant more than 1,600 trees.

“The message is don’t wait and Trees Forever’s not waiting,” Ramsay said.

Educating the community on how to care for trees and training “treekeepers” to look after them will be key to the replanting effort, Ramsay said.

Trees for the replating effort would come from a number of nurseries in the Midwest to accommodate the expected demand, she said.

“We’ve been saying people really need to think and plan before they immediately start planting,” Ramsay said. She encouraged people to plant native species that support wildlife.

For public trees, Hock said there could be replanting efforts in small numbers in the spring but more likely would occur in the fall.


The replanting efforts will be especially challenging not only because of the scope but because of the need to find inventories that provide the ideal diversity and native species, Hock added.

The city plans to work with different nurseries and Trees Forever’s Growing Futures program that employs teenagers to help grow and care for trees. City staff also are considering other alternatives such as gravel beds, where saplings are planted, then allowed to grow for some time before being transplanted elsewhere.

Pomeranz has shared the city’s commitment to spend $1 million annually for the next several years on the ReLeaf campaign, but Trees Forever still is in need of contributions. Ramsay declined to provide a current fundraising total but said Trees Forever has received over 500 contributions for replanting efforts across all derecho-affected communities.

Many small gifts have poured in, she added, but nothing to the tune of the $5 million to $10 million the organization hopes to raise. She hopes the ReLeaf plan will prompt other donors to step in, including national contributors and potentially the U.S. Forest Service.

“For us to bring in federal dollars, I think we will have to have documentation and a plan laid out,” Ramsay said. “A visionary plan with a planner like Jeff Speck, I believe, will attract dollars. There’s no guarantees.”

In Marion, which is not part of the ReLeaf program but benefits from Trees Forever’s support, tree-replanting efforts will begin this spring and will continue for the next five to 10 years, city arborist Mike Cimprich said.

Marion lost at least 35 percent of its public tree canopy, Cimprich said, and he estimates that the loss of privately owned trees is at least double.

Cimprich said he speculates Marion’s replanting effort will involve about 4,000 trees.

“We also will be promoting proper education on installing the tree properly,” Cimprich said. “You can’t just plant a tree and forget. It needs attention over the first two to three seasons to get the strongest start.”


To keep up with the expected demand, he said Marion has been securing orders for 2021 and talking to providers about availability over the next five years.

“It’s certainly not a large enough number to accommodate the desire as we go through the next few years,” Cimprich said. “We’re focusing on local first in Iowa then working outwards. A tree in Florida won’t hold up in Iowa as a tree in Iowa or Minnesota would.”

Comments: (319) 398-8494;

Gage Miskimen of The Gazette contributed to this report.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.