Trees do so much more than offer protection and awe-inspiring beauty: They're vital to our health and the Earth's. These organizations are working hard to reforest the planet—and helping people plant for the future in their own yards, too.  

By Lise Funderburg
November 26, 2019

In grade-school science class, we learned that trees produce the air we breathe. But the estimated three trillion of them currently living on Earth do far more than that. They filter out pollutants, prevent erosion, and redirect stormwater from overtaxed sewers. They cool air temperatures; offer shelter from UV rays; yield fruits, nuts, and medicinal ingredients; and, according to the UN, provide homes for more than 80 percent of the planet's land-based animals, plants, and insects. And that's just a warm-up. More than half of the drinking water in the United States is filtered through their roots. In cities, trees reduce the prevalence of asthma (per a 2008 Columbia University study) and crime (from research analyzed by Vibrant Cities Lab), while encouraging people to socialize more and increasing real-estate values. And in Kenya, they've helped lift people out of poverty and starvation.

Ngoc Minh Ngo

Trees also make us feel good. We climb them. We hug them. We stretch out underneath their boughs. Their very presence can foster intimacy and wonder, sensations captured in the popular Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, which invites people to disconnect from the wired world, wander through woods, and breathe deeply. But the question remains: Will future generations breathe as deeply? 

Like the oceans, trees remove carbon from the air, and we currently lose an estimated 10 billion of them a year to deforestation in the name of development and climate change (increased temperatures, flooding, and fires). This means that they may be the secret to reversing global warming, too, states a study recently released by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. What we have to do is grow more of them. A lot more. The Institute's climate-change ecologist Thomas Crowther and his team calculate that by planting 1.2 trillion on Earth's available open land (an area roughly the size of China and the U.S. combined), we could rid the atmosphere of two-thirds of the excess carbon already produced by human  activity. "The nice thing about this solution is that it's really low-tech," Crowther said when the study was released. The key is to start now on a local level (planting native varieties in your yard, protecting the trees in your community), and also donate to nonprofits that are working to restore and expand Earth's tree canopy on a massive scale. These are the organizations we're rooting for.

Related: How to Plant a Vegetable Garden

Backyard Woods

A stunning 49 percent of all forested land in the U.S. is privately owned, and more than half of that belongs to people who live on 10 acres or less. To develop or manage your own thicket, this Arbor Day Foundation program offers free tip sheets on everything arboreal, from how to thin a dense canopy to chain-saw safety. Become a member here, and you'll receive 10 free saplings to get started.

PHS Tree Tenders

Around Philadelphia, social worker Mindy Maslin is known as the "Tree Lady." Twenty-six years ago, she got the idea to art a neighborhood-centric, community-led tree-planting initiative for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. It was the first of its kind in the country, teaching more than 5,200 volunteers basic tree biology, care, and pruning know-how, as well as how to identify and respond to stressors including dogs, weeds, and car doors. Today, the thriving program serves as a model for cities around the world that want to preserve and expand their urban forest—learn more here.

Casey Trees

In 2002, philanthropist Betty Brown Casey set up this nonprofit after learning that the canopy in Washington, D.C., once known as the City of Trees, had shrunk by 15 percent since the 1950s. Its strategy includes planting an average of 14,000 trees a year, training volunteer stewards of all ages, providing continuing-education courses, and creating interactive online tools like the Tree Benefit Calculator, which gauges the environmental value of any specific, existing tree. 

The MillionTrees Project

This East Moline, Illinois, program is an offshoot of a river-cleanup nonprofit that has pulled almost 10.4 million pounds of trash from local waterways since 1998. Founder Chad Pregracke has expanded the group's mission to grow native oaks from volunteer-collected acorns, tend them in a nursery, and then transfer them to riverbanks and watersheds. The organization met its first million-tree milestone in 2016, and is shooting for a second one; you can learn more about their mission right here.

Related: Ireland Will Plant 22 Million Trees Every Year to Fight Climate Change

Plant 50 Million Trees

On Earth Day 2018, the National Forest Foundation launched its campaign to do just that in U.S. forests within five years. The need for reforestation is partly due to pests such as the mountain pine beetle, which has eradicated expansive stands of trees; and the increased frequency and intensity of forest fires, which researchers calculate have become significantly more frequent since the 1980s due to climate change. Thanks to a matching grant from the U.S. Forest Service, every dollar donated equals one planted tree. 

Plant a Billion Trees

Following the slogan "One Gift. One Tree. One Planet," the Nature Conservancy solicits funds to support its goal of planting a billion trees around the world by 2025. Donors can target their contribution to one of four critical destinations where forests have been severely degraded: The United States, Brazil, China, or Mexico. Learn more here.

The Green Belt Movement

Founded in 1977 by Kenyan professor Wangari Maathai, recipient of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, GBM is a grassroots nongovernmental organization (NGO) that focuses on conservation and community development. Early on, Maathai saw the fundamental link between trees and survival, and explained it frankly: "If you destroy the forest, then the river will stop flowing, the rains will become irregular, the crops will fail, and you will die of hunger and starvation." To date, GBM chapters have planted more than 51 million trees in Kenya. Though Maathai passed away in 2011, more than four thousand affiliated community groups carry forth her work.

The Time for Trees

The Arbor Day Foundation started this initiative, which aims to plant 100 million trees and enlist five million tree planters by 2022, the 150th anniversary of Arbor Day. Over their lifespan, that many could absorb eight million tons of carbon (the equivalent of taking 6.2 million cars off the road for a year) and remove enough air pollution to fill 70,000 blimps.

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