Revive Earth Day's roots: Celebrate its 50th by planting a tree

"Tree planting magic" in action: This large, energetic group of volunteers planted approximately 600 trees in just a few hours at a school in northern York County, PA, in the fall of 2019. (Ryan Davis)
"Tree planting magic" in action: This large, energetic group of volunteers planted approximately 600 trees in just a few hours at a school in northern York County, PA, in the fall of 2019. (Ryan Davis)

As a 30-year-old, I cannot personally speak about the first Earth Day. But I do know that 50 years ago we had no U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, no Clean Water Act and appallingly inadequate proto-versions of the Endangered Species Act and Clean Air Act. I know rivers were burning, DDT was sprayed from airplanes across the nation, and people were beginning to realize that we only have one planet and the status quo would not allow us to survive on it for long.

The first Earth Day, on April 22, 1970, was the turning point for environmental awareness. It was a clear indication of public demand for better stewardship, galvanizing the nation and its leaders to take action. The years that followed mark an era of bipartisan accomplishments for environmental stewardship. New point-source pollution standards and regulations were enforced, and mechanisms for reining in nonpoint source pollution set up our modern fight for the Chesapeake Bay.

The environmental awakening that gave us Earth Day also marks a turning point for the Bay.

Several organizations emerged focused on Bay restoration—including the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, where I manage the Chesapeake Forests Program in Pennsylvania, New York and parts of Maryland. Increased scrutiny by these groups revealed that the Chesapeake was home to the first marine "dead zone" documented in the United States. A dead zone occurs when excess nutrient pollution feeds algae blooms, which are decomposed by oxygen-consuming bacteria and other organisms, resulting in very little dissolved oxygen to support aquatic life. It still haunts us every summer, but the shock in the late 1970s and early 1980s spurred action.

The Chesapeake Bay Program, a state-federal partnership, was soon created, and after a few decades of hard work by scientists, activists and restoration professionals, the EPA intervened. Using its authority granted in the Clean Water Act, the EPA in 2010 issued a Total Maximum Daily Load—or "pollution diet"—that sets allowable limits for pollutants reaching the Bay. The clock was also set, with a 15-year deadline, for all of the states that drain into the Bay to take the needed actions to meet their pollution limits.

With five years left before the EPA's deadline, I see stark parallels between the Chesapeake cleanup effort and global climate change action. On both fronts, brilliant people have been doing their best for decades. On both fronts, a majority of the public is in favor of dramatic action. On both fronts, some nations (or, in the case of the Bay, states) are making much more headway than others. And on both fronts, it hasn't been enough.

So what can conservation professionals and concerned citizens do? We are taking restoration action and reaching out to the public to inspire them to do the same. We are working hard to achieve top-down political change and bring resources to landowners so that conservation can happen on the ground.

If you've ever attended a volunteer tree planting, you've almost certainly experienced what can only be called tree-planting magic. Volunteers will trickle into the planting site, usually a cold Saturday morning. They're often quiet and timid at first. When they get started, the work goes slowly. Many people have never planted a tree before, and it takes a few trees to get the hang of it. Gradually, the pace picks up and the number of trees left to be planted looks much more feasible.

Some people talk, others sing, and almost everyone smiles. The air is loud with pounding hammers and laughter. And suddenly, far earlier than expected, there are no more trees to plant. The muddy group will, one by one, turn around and marvel at the new forest that they helped to plant. Each volunteer leaves the site with a stronger stewardship ethic than they had when they arrived.

The tens of thousands of residents who volunteer to plant trees each season are energized, empowered and eager for the next planting. So my question is: What if everyone planted a tree? Or, more realistically, what if just one out of ten people did it?

Back in 1970, at countless events around the country, an estimated 20 million people participated in Earth Day. At the time, the U.S. population was around 200 million, meaning that approximately 10% of our nation participated in the first Earth Day. If it seems like this was a watershed moment, that's because it was. Perhaps residents and politicians responded to a whopping 10% of Americans demonstrating for our planet by joining the effort themselves.

While I may not be able to get 10% of Pennsylvanians to join me in planting trees this spring, it may be possible to get that many to at least hear about what we're doing, and perhaps resolve to join a tree planting as soon as they can.

In an attempt to tackle this huge task, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay decided to go big for our celebration of the 50th Earth Day. A regular tree planting, even a huge one, wouldn't quite do. We need a planting that is so much fun, so novel, so absurd, that people will pay attention and want to plant trees themselves.

What we came up with certainly is absurd: We're going to plant trees for 24 straight hours. Our "50th Earth Day 24-Hour Tree Planting Relay"—or "Treelay," for short—will consist of six volunteer tree plantings running back-to-back, around the clock. Of course, the novel coronavirus had other ideas; instead of happening on Earth Day itself, Treelay will now be held in autumn. We'll take extra care that 50th anniversary spirit is still there, strong as ever!

As fun as the Treelay is going to be, it will not be remembered 50 years from now as the tipping point that led to the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay and mitigation of global climate change. If 10% is still the number to reach, we will need 1.8 million residents of the watershed to take action in order to spur the remainder to join. For the United States to take adequate action on climate change, we will need 37.2 million residents. That is a wildly lofty goal, but imagine if that many people joined a tree planting some day, if not this year.

It is our duty, as the conservation-minded community, to bring our fellow Americans with us. We need to make participation accessible by everyone, everywhere. Not only because the environment belongs to us all, but because we will need the participation of as many people as possible if we are to have hope for the future.

And what better way to energize your community than to commemorate, however belatedly, the 50th anniversary of Earth Day?

Ryan Davis is the program manager of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay's Chesapeake Forests Program in Pennsylvania, New York and parts of Maryland. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the Bay Journal.

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