Take a deep breath and say thanks for the trees

I was born on a frigid day in December, Devils Lake, North Dakota, 20 below zero. My parents had planned on a Thanksgiving baby, but I was bound and determined to stay in the womb for another two weeks. As my mother likes to say, “We figured that it was so cold outside, you had decided to try and wait out the winter.” That same year, 1978, the Washington Conservation District started its tree program. I doubt that thoughts of trees or conservation passed through my parents’ minds as they bundled up to head home from the hospital, but I think it was awfully nice of the people around here to start planting trees as soon as I was born.

Pictured in the photo (from left to right): Back row - Master Gardener Nancy Hansen, WCD Board Supervisor John Rheinberger, Master Gardener Mark Paulsen, WCD Wetland Specialist Todd Udvig, WCD Natural Resource Specialist Rusty Schmidt, WCD District Manager Jay Riggs; Front row - WCD Natural Resource Specialist Jyneen Thatcher, WCD Board Supervisor Louise Smallidge.

Washington is just one of many Conservation Districts in the state that holds an annual spring tree sale, and by now the event has been running for so long that many people have forgotten what a truly significant impact it has had on our landscape. Take notice the next time you are out biking or driving in the country of all the trees lining farm fields in the area and all the scattered patches of woodlands that you pass. Many of these trees were purchased from the Conservation District years ago and planted by local landowners in order to reduce farm field erosion from wind and rain, provide habitat for birds and wildlife, and beautify the countryside. They got those trees started just in time for you and I to enjoy them today.

This year, the Washington Conservation District sold nearly 20,000 trees and more than 100 rain barrels. Those numbers are pretty impressive to begin with, but when you stop to consider the services provided by each tree and rain barrel, it is just short of amazing. A 55-gallon rain barrel that is emptied regularly will collect approximately 2250 gallons of water in a typical year. 100 new rain barrels in Washington County can collect 225,000 gallons of rainwater for people to reuse instead of sucking those 225,000 gallons of water out of our drinking water supplies or letting the water runoff into the street to become polluted. Trees come in all shapes and sizes, but on average, the canopy of a mature tree can intercept 1600 gallons of water per year. Multiply that by 20,000 trees, and you have 32 million gallons of rainwater not causing pollution by running off into roads and ditches.

Trees provide a host of other service as well. It takes about 22 trees to provide enough oxygen for one person, so these 20,000 trees will one day help to keep 909 people breathing. If they were all planted in one location, the trees would cover about 45 acres of land, enough to capture the carbon dioxide released by 45 people driving 26,000 miles a year. The trees also provide important food and shelter for migratory songbirds, pheasants, deer and other wildlife. Professor Doug Tallamy, University of Maryland, has found that most of our bird species eat larval insects such as caterpillars and beetle larva that are most abundantly found on native trees and shrubs. For example, our local grandfather tree, white oak, hosts 518 species of delicious, bird-approved larval insects. During this year’s tree sale, county residents purchased 1000 white oak trees. They also purchased 2500 white pines (191 larval insects), 1000 sugar maples and 800 red maples (287 larval insects each), 700 red-osier dogwood shrubs (115 larval insects), 500 chokecherries (429 larval insects) and 350 black cherry trees (429 larval insects).

Coordinating the spring tree and rain barrel sale each year is no small feat. Conservation District staff spend around 400 hours planning, promoting, and coordinating the sale. Master Gardeners and Conservation District board supervisors also lend their volunteer time during the week of the tree handout to haul in, handout and answer questions about planting. Equally impressive is the level of community involvement that makes this program successful year after year. This spring, 297 people purchased at least one bundle of trees and 78 people purchased rain barrels; that’s 375 people altogether. In 2010, 429 people purchased trees or rain barrels during the spring sale. Some people in the county have been buying trees from the Conservation District since 1978 when the sale first started. They’ve shown an incredible commitment to conservation and we all benefit from the habitat improvements they’ve helped to make happen. In fact, you could say that the Washington Conservation District’s tree program is a perfect example of a public-private partnership that really works.

So, take a deep breath, enjoy a drive in the country while the weather is still warm, and says thanks for the hundreds of thousands of trees in our area, made possible by the Washington Conservation District and community members who care.