Pennsylvania, under criticism by fellow Chesapeake Bay drainage states for being far behind in meeting pollution reduction goals, has turned to trees in a big way to make up ground.
The state’s new blueprint for stemming pollution flowing into the Bay prioritizes tree plantings along streams in farmland and urban areas, next to streets, in lawns and on abandoned mine land.
In all, the plan calls for more than 18 million new trees to cloak the landscape by the end of 2025 — especially as forested buffers along streams.
In addition, the Keystone 10 Million Trees Partnership, an ambitious separate initiative spearheaded by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, wants to plant another 10 million trees statewide in the same time frame. And that’s not counting smaller grassroots efforts.
“There’s no panacea for the Bay, but buffers are a close one,” said Cindy Adams Dunn, head of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which has championed trees in recent years and is the main agency tasked with ramping up tree planting.
Pennsylvania is already 60% covered by trees. But there aren’t enough trees where they need to be, said Harry Campbell, the Bay Foundation’s Pennsylvania executive director.
“We do have a lot of trees in the state of Pennsylvania, but the thing is, they are not in the right places,” Campbell said.
“The restoration and preservation of trees, particularly in strategic areas, can have a profound impact on the condition of streams and rivers, and particularly meeting our Chesapeake Bay goals.”
The tree initiatives are gathering steam, but some are doubtful their lofty goals can be attained. To date, the state effort is still at less than 1 million trees, and the 2-year-old 10 Million Trees partnership stands at about 1.7 million trees statewide.
But public officials and advocates maintain that the pace of tree planting is increasing now that infrastructure is in place, grassroots and corporate partnerships have expanded, funding has increased and nurseries — once unwilling to invest in growing large quantities of trees — are buying into the effort.
“Everyone acknowledges it is a very steep goal,” Dunn said. “It took a while for people to accept. Having it become a regular part of the farm landscape takes time.”
Growing interest in blunting the effects of climate change has also spurred the public’s appetite for more trees. Trees store large amounts of the carbon dioxide greenhouse gas — 5 million tons of carbon dioxide if state goals are reached — and trees planted on city streets break up the heat island effect that is projected to become more dangerous.
The state’s urban and suburban tree planting goals are for an average of 300 trees to be planted per acre, a concentration about one-third higher than for streamside buffers on farmland. Concentrations would be highest when trees are planted side by side along streets, but lower in parks and school campuses.
Officials point to the many benefits that trees offer and stress that it’s a simple conservation measure needed everywhere.
“There’s just not a lot that moves the needle like trees do,” said Ryan Davis, manager for the Chesapeake Forests program of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. “We absolutely need to have them everywhere.”
By far, the biggest push is to establish filtering strips of trees and other vegetation along streams in farm country, where fertilizers and soil can run off during heavy rains. Strips 100–150 feet wide are preferred in the state plan, but even a buffer 30 feet wide can help break up the flow of stormwater and filter pollutants. A buffered stream can absorb eight times more nitrogen and five times as much phosphorus as one without trees and grasses, according to Campbell.
Pennsylvania’s latest Bay cleanup plan calls for forested buffers on 83,000 acres of farmland and 2,650 acres in developed areas, totaling about 17 million trees.
“If we don’t get close to these forest buffer goals, there’s almost no way we get to have these healthy streams, period,” Davis said.
Streamside trees provide wildlife with habitat and corridors for movement, while their roots help to stabilize stream banks, reducing erosion. The shade helps fish survive. Branches and leaves that fall into the stream enrich the water with organic matter that feed macroinvertbrate insects that, in turn, support fish. And increased biological activity helps the stream capture more nutrients.
“The bottom line is the presence of trees helps to not only preserves and protects water quality and the ecosystem, but also helps the stream cleanse itself,” Campbell said.
And planting trees is a relatively inexpensive improvement on the landscape that gets more effective over time, with a boost in real estate values to boot.
Leaders in the tree planting effort say that a greater variety in programs that offer financial or technical assistance for tree plantings is drawing more landowner interest, especially from farmers.
Programs have become more creative and flexible, allowing a variety of buffer widths, with more vegetation. Some landowners, for example, want to bring in birds, others game animals. Some programs include after-planting maintenance, which is often a time drag for busy farmers.
Multifunctional buffers that generate income for landowners are also a draw. Growing elderberries for jam and syrup that can be sold at farm markets is popular, as is red osier dogwood and pussy willow trees whose ornamental cuttings are in demand. Trees that bear fruits and nuts can be sprinkled in among the vegetation.
Yet another new driver is the requirement for municipalities to reduce nutrient pollution from stormwater runoff. Many are turning to stream restoration projects with forested buffers as a way to meet those goals.
In addition to getting trees planted along streams in farmland and in urban areas, the state plan calls for 35,000 acres of barren abandoned mine land to again become living ecosystems with trees and plants. It also aims to convert 10,000 acres of lawns and mowed turf to forests or meadows with pollinator habitat.
Conservation plays a role too, with the state plan calling for 20,000 acres of existing forests and natural areas to be protected and 400 acres of wetlands to be restored annually.
One of DCNR’s linchpins for carrying out its tree agenda is its Riparian Forest Buffer Program, which provides grants and short-term maintenance for projects. The agency’s TreeVitalize program is a public-private partnership to help communities plan, plant and care for urban tree projects.
A private initiative, Tree Tenders, started by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, trains people throughout the state to properly plant and care for trees, then go out and drum up more community plantings.
The Keystone 10 Million Trees Partnership has created a coalition of 124 partners that include state government, businesses and local and national conservation groups.
To identify the best places where trees will make a difference in stemming pollution, the group is working with the Chesapeake Conservancy to use satellite imagery and computer modeling to find the most concentrated flows of runoff, like streams at the bottom of a sloped farm field.
Campbell thinks trees are the way to go as Pennsylvania works to meet its Bay cleanup commitment.
“People can understand trees. It’s difficult sometimes to explain cover crops to a suburban soccer mom. But a tree is much more relatable. We can connect people to this larger endeavor and make them feel that they are part of the solution,” Campbell said.