Larry Herr walks along the stream buffer that will get more new trees to further restore and protect Silver Creek as it babbles through 76 acres of the rolling, forested hills of his Lebanon County, PA, farm.

The native trees will support natural ecosystems and provide habitat and food for the brook trout that Larry Herr cares so much about, as well as birds, mammals, insects and macroinvertebrates. More trees added nearby will filter and absorb runoff from a nearby pasture and Herr’s small herd of beef cattle.

Larry Herr’s modest stand of 50–75 new trees is one of many important pieces in Pennsylvania’s pollution reduction puzzle. They are among the 400 trees planted regionally by the Lebanon Valley Conservancy and the overall total of about 31,000 planted by the Keystone 10 Million Trees Partnership through the end of April.

The new partnership is a statewide effort, coordinated by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, to help clean and protect Pennsylvania’s 86,000 miles of rivers and streams. Its goal is arduous but necessary — plant 10 million trees along streams, streets and other priority landscapes by the end of 2025.

In its first week, the collaborative partnership of national, regional, state and local agencies; conservation organizations; outdoors enthusiasts; businesses; and citizens planted trees at more than 50 sites. Through the years and planting seasons ahead, the partnership is certain to not only grow, but evolve to suit the changing needs of the landscape — and partners themselves.

At the moment, roughly 19,000 miles of Pennsylvania’s waters are considered impaired, and the commonwealth continues to lag significantly behind in meeting its Bay cleanup goals. Meanwhile, the Keystone State is to have all practices in its watershed implementation plans in place by 2025 to meet Bay water quality goal. It missed its interim goal of having 60 percent in place by 2017. 

Trees are an important answer.

Streamside trees play a significant role in reducing the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment that flows from farmland onto urban and suburban landscapes, harming local waterways and the Bay.

The partnership is driven by the knowledge that trees are the most cost-effective tools for filtering and absorbing polluted runoff, stabilizing stream banks and improving soil quality.

But the challenge standing before the partnership is taller than the mightiest native oak. The number of buffers in Penn’s Woods will have to increase sixfold if the state is to get back on track toward meeting its pollution-reduction goals.

The commonwealth’s Clean Water Blueprint calls for roughly 96,000 acres of additional forested buffers to be planted statewide from 2015 to 2025. Add in urban and suburban tree plantings, and the number comes to about 10 million trees.

To get the most bang for its river birches and other native trees, the partnership is putting its emphasis on the five counties in southcentral Pennsylvania that contribute more than 30 million pounds per year of nitrogen pollution from agriculture to the Chesapeake Bay. The Partnership can jump-start the commonwealth’s progress with concentrated plantings in those counties.

There is no way the Bay Foundation, or any single entity, can expect to plant 10 million trees on its own. Adding that many trees to Penn’s Woods and changing the tide in Pennsylvania will take the unprecedented collaboration of many hands, diverse plantings and committed leadership.

Partners such as conservancies, conservation districts, watershed groups and Trout Unlimited chapters regularly plant trees by the hundreds. Others, as on Larry Herr’s farm, put them in by the dozen. Success will require all hands in all areas.

A diverse mapping of planting sites will address sources of harmful runoff that not only originate on farms, but are significant sources of damage to local waters. Trees placed in parks, municipal properties and other urban and suburban settings absorb and clean stormwater, reduce flooding and help restore abandoned mine land.

With so many Pennsylvania partners seeing the planting of trees as a solution — and mobilizing to accomplish it — this is an opportunity for the legislature to elevate its own commitment of technical and financial support to get the commonwealth back on track.

A proposal to create a Keystone Tree Fund would allow a voluntary checkoff box on driver’s license applications in Pennsylvania. Contributions would support the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Forested Riparian Buffer and TreeVitalize programs. 

Local economic benefits cannot be overlooked. Tools and trees like those used on Larry Herr’s farm come from Pennsylvania businesses. The Partnership’s supply-chain approach to procurement of supplies and sustained maintenance programs can stabilize the marketplace and create incentives for landowners and partners.

Reducing Pennsylvania’s pollution loads will take many trees and many hands. The Keystone 10 Million Trees Partnership is committed to meeting the challenge.

Clean water for future generations of Pennsylvanians and Bay watershed residents depends on it.

To learn more about the Keystone 10 Million Trees Partnership, visit TenMillionTrees.org.

The views of columnists do not necessarily reflect those of the Bay Journal.