What’s the focus of the American ReLeaf program?
These plantings protect water and air quality, and moderate climate change by restoring wildlife habitat. It isn’t just because we love cute fuzzy animals or endangered species, although we do. It’s because we’re all in this together and the health of creatures in our world is directly connected to the health of people. As various populations of animals are threatened or become extinct we find factors in their environments that are affecting us, too. It’s the canary in the coalmine effect. When other species are in trouble—we’re in trouble.
This year is exciting for us as it’s the 25th anniversary of American ReLeaf. We are about to plant our 50-millionth tree in this program! We’ve also completed our 1000th American ReLeaf project. We’ve planted trees in all 50 states and 45 countries.
Can you describe some of the projects?
We plant trees in South and Central America, Mexico, India, Africa, and Asia. In instances such as Haiti where as a matter of survival people have been cutting down trees for heating, cooking, or shelter, they’re not realizing that denuding their environment of trees makes their community much more vulnerable to flooding. Trees diffuse heavy rain and filter water when it hits the ground, and without sufficient trees, rivers become polluted or silted in.
Clean water can be restored by planting trees along riverbanks. American ReLeaf isn’t just in faraway places—in Detroit and Albuquerque we’ve done riparian, or riverbank, plantings. In the wake of Hurricane Irene in New England, rivers became silted and trout populations were endangered. So we did riparian plantings there to restore clean water.
A favorite project of mine is our Monarch butterfly project in Mexico, in a very small area where these butterflies go home every winter. These mountains are heavily damaged by people using the wood, including for illegal logging. Our program there not only restores the forest but helps educate kids and parents about how essential those trees are for their own survival. Our international programs teach people that trees are part of THEIR communities, as well.
Another is our work to replant mangroves in Southeast Asia, China, and even Florida. Mangrove trees grow right at the edges of beaches, extending into the water. They’re extraordinarily good at holding soil and protecting shorelines from tsunamis. In many areas, they’re cut down to make room for shrimp farms that occupy coastal spaces for a few years until all the nutrients are tapped out. Then the farms move on and leave behind a wasteland that is very vulnerable to flooding. Now, I look for the point of origin when I buy shrimp. I won’t buy it if it’s from Thailand and other Asian countries. Unfortunately, people are destroying their own environments for short-term benefits.