Rwanda, 2019 (One Tree Planted)
Climate

Can We Plant One Trillion Trees?

The work of One Tree Planted, an environmental reforestation non-profit.

Can We Plant One Trillion Trees?

Jane Goodall became involved in tree planting when she realized how it impacted chimpanzee populations. Last week, she commented, “Now the people have understood that saving the forest is also saving their own future.”

One trillion is a huge number. But if we consider the value of a tree, it’s a worthy goal.

“A tree does so much,” said Diana Chaplin of One Tree Planted, an environmental reforestation charity. “I like to call trees the pillars of our terrestrial ecosystem. Without them, we would not have natural food chains, healthy soil, healthy water supplies… They’re so critical around which all these other things thrive.”

Trees help filter air by absorbing carbon dioxide and other pollutants and releasing clean oxygen into the atmosphere. They collect water to prevent floods. They host countless species, providing food and shelter. They create jobs (and food) for nearby communities. They help cool the planet, even in cities.

As much as we need trees, how they’re planted is a complicated process. Not everyone wants a tree in their backyard. Some property owners reject new ones in their neighborhoods because it can encourage people to throw out trash there, interfere with utilities, or diminish parking space. If we plant the wrong species, like a ficus in San Francisco, branches can fall off and crush cars, creating greater damage and higher repair costs.

But then, we return to the staggering statistics:

  • 80% of the world’s forests are already destroyed
  • 80,000 acres disappear every day

If planted properly, and with the right intentions, trees can contribute to fixing what we’ve broken. That’s the idea behind One Tree Planted.

One Dollar, One Tree

One Tree Planted began organically, after founder Matt Hill, who had been working in sustainable packaging, discovered that there wasn’t a great, easy option for businesses to get involved in reforestation projects.

“That simplicity is one of our core values,” said Diana. “That’s why we have it as one dollar, one tree. Anybody can visualize what the impact of their donation will be.”

Diana joined One Tree Planted three years ago, after she became interested in starting a tree-planting campaign for her birthday. She got on the phone with the then-small team and began asking questions. She’s been working with the organization ever since.

Muir Woods, 2018 (One Tree Planted)

One Tree Planted aims to remain politically neutral — and, overall, actionable. “We don’t do petitions or lobbying. We don’t really talk about environmental policies, although the people and organizations that do are allies.”

Instead, the focus is on the positive impacts of restoration. “When natural disasters happen, we try not to say, ‘It’s climate change, world leaders are dropping the ball.’ What we do is environmental restoration after these events. We frame it as: These problems are really big, but planting a tree is something anyone can do.

That’s one of Diana’s favorite parts of the job. Seeing their impact on the ground: how forests are flourishing again and communities are benefiting economically.

Choosing the Right Tree and Keeping It Alive

“People ask us all the time: Can I just plant a tree wherever I want? And the answer is no. It’s illegal and there are so many reasons for that. It could be the wrong tree species, it could be the wrong time, there could be issues with invasive species in the area.”

That’s why, aside from working with local partner organizations and ecological experts on reforestation projects, One Tree Planted organizes events several times a year to help citizens understand the process. Most of these events involve tree planting, but since each location’s ecology is unique, others focus on tree care, which can be equally important, especially in drought-prone areas. These activities include watering, mulching, and adding soil amendments that help maintain young trees (planted in an earlier project).

Plant a Tree Day 2019 (One Tree Planted)

Fall and spring tend to be the best times to plant trees, but there are exceptions. One Tree Planted has two upcoming events in northern California, where the best time to plant is actually in the winter. “The soil is not too hard and frozen, but there is enough moisture there to help the tree stay alive,” Diana explained. “You want to be careful when you’re planting in the spring because, when summer comes, there’s a greater possibility of a drought hitting these areas.” So, in areas like northern California, trees planted in winter will get enough water to establish their root systems, building their resilience if and when a drought arrives.

Responding to Natural Disasters

When it comes to international projects after natural disasters, once again, One Tree Planted turns to the experts.

“When you’re seeing it in the headlines, we’re already mobilizing the restoration piece that we know will be needed after the active disaster is over.”

For example, the organization previously did a project in Tasmania; now, they’re in talks with their Australian partners weekly to see how they can collaborate in light of the devastating fires there. In some cases, it may be too early to tell.

“The interesting thing about post-forest fire restoration is that, in some areas, natural regeneration takes over, and you don’t need to plant trees there. You need local ecology experts to do the assessment. In some parts of Australia, regeneration is already happening.”

“It’s incredible to see these green plants sprouting up from dark ashes. I find it to be really hopeful and symbolic.”

In other cases, like when a disaster burns the entire seed in the soil or there are no living trees for miles (whose seeds can spread via wind to the damaged soil), human reforestation is critical — especially since invasive species can move in quickly, making it tricky for natural regeneration to occur.

What types are trees are most effective in reforestation?

As with all other considerations for planting, “It depends.”

Some projects, like agro-forestry, have maintenance woven in. In these cases, farms are incentivized to keep trees alive because, in a few years, they’ll begin producing fruits, providing food and boosting the local economy. This method also benefits the climate and surrounding food crops. Research shows that when you integrate trees with other food crops, “it benefits the soil, it creates shade, it maintains nutrients in the soil, and it prevents erosion,” Diana said.

Rwanda, 2019 (One Tree Planted)

In the summer of 2017, British Columbia experienced its worst-ever wildfire; over 1.2 million hectares burned. These forests included over 40 different tree types, predominantly pine, spruce, and fir. When it was time to replant, One Tree Planted collaborated with the provincial government on a three-year plan. Their partners are currently experimenting with tree types, planting some native species along with new ones that are more fire-resilient.

British Columbia, September 2019 (One Tree Planted)

“Reforestation is a relatively new science in terms of how it’s done,” Diana explained.

British Columbia, September 2019 (One Tree Planted)

From when to plant to where to what type of tree, each project calls for a unique set of guidelines. So how can One Tree Planted maintain its ‘$1 = 1 tree’ promise?

“It’s a real challenge,” Diana said. “Sometimes they cost more, sometimes they cost less.” With surpluses from the less costly ones, they’ll subsidize the more expensive trees — or contribute to additional costs.

“The total cost of getting a tree in the ground is more than the sapling. Supplies, salaries, transportation, land prep can be extremely expensive.” If there’s a project where trees cost, say, 60 cents, but trucks are needed to bring them up a mountain and there are no other local partners onboard, One Tree Planted will allocate the remaining 40 cents to that.

And the plants always come from a local nursery. Shipping them emits too much carbon and it’s not guaranteed that the tree will survive in a new environment.


Back to the trillion tree initiative. I asked Diana: Can it be done?

“Yes, we can plant over a trillion trees on Earth if we really really wanted to. By ‘we.’ I mean all of humanity, especially people in decision-making roles.”

In the Philippines, as of last year, students have to plant 10 trees to graduate from high school. In Bhutan, one day every year is devoted to tree planting; every citizen participates. Imagine if these approaches spread globally.

Though the effort is noble, Diana added, “It’s complicated. I think people are so quick to say, ‘Let’s plan a trillion trees, great.’ But we really need to do it correctly and work with local communities.”

“You cannot separate environmental restoration from local people that are in these parts of the world. They are the wisdom bearers to determine the best way to go about this work.”

As far as the future of these trillion trees is concerned, it comes down to one question:

“You can plant them, but will they grow?”

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