A post-derecho “little idea” has grown into a big result: 30,300 trees planted in Linn and Benton counties since the storm struck August 10, 2020.
Steve Knapp, President and Chief Financial Officer of FG (formerly Fiberutilities Group) wanted to help employees who lost trees during the derecho. The brutal storm blasted Iowa, pummeling the Cedar Rapids area with wind speeds up to 140 mph—the strongest speeds ever recorded during a derecho, according to the National Weather Service.
In Linn County alone, the derecho damaged an estimated 953,224 trees and 7,061 acres of tree canopy, the most of any county in Iowa, according to a survey by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. The DNR survey estimates more than 7 million trees were destroyed across the state of Iowa.
Knapp engaged with his leadership team and they birthed the idea to gift trees to their employees. But the trees couldn’t be just any ol’ trees. They had to be native to the area. The idea was shared with Clark McLeod, a member of the FG Advisory Panel. McLeod too had been pondering how to help employees and the area recover from the storm.
“I had planned on making a purely monetary gift to the employees to replant,” McLeod said. “the FG idea of employers providing employees with native trees was the best way to help them. It was the perfect vehicle for getting our entire area replanted.”
Planting Forward is Born
Soon the idea became the Planting Forward program, so named because it makes an immediate impact on the area’s tree canopy and leaves a legacy for future generations. In fall 2020, FG and five other companies ordered more than 1,000 trees, spending between $100 and $600 per employee. In spring 2021, 38 organizations distributed 15,000 trees.
In October 2021, school employees in Linn and Benton counties received nearly 8,000 trees through the program. In addition to the trees for school employees, 6,300 trees were distributed to employees at 17 area businesses and organizations. In fall 2021, a total of 4,500 employees requested native Iowa trees through Planting Forward.
Why native trees? They provide essential energy for our ecosystem, explains McLeod, a former junior high biology teacher.
To determine the most ecologically impactful trees to offer, Planting Forward consulted with Douglas Tallamy, a professor in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware and the bestselling author of “Bringing Nature Home” (Timber Press, 2009) and “Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard” (Timber Press, 2020). Tallamy identified 25 native tree species, including seven varieties of oaks. Oak, McLeod explains, is the most prominent “keystone” species in the Midwest. Keystone species have a high impact on an area’s ecosystem. Without them, the ecosystem could cease to exist.
In addition to receiving the gift of trees, employees also are educated on the importance of planting native trees as well as how to care for them. The trees are purchased from Forrest Keeling Nursery in Elsberry, Missouri, because the nursery can keep up with demand for native trees, McLeod says.
Saving the Monarchs
The Planting Forward program goes hand-in-hand with Monarch Research Project, a Marion-based, non-profit organization started by McLeod and Cam Watts, a former teacher and tennis professional. The Monarch Research Project is focused on boosting the monarch population by rebuilding natural habitat in Linn County. McLeod and Watts had a goal of planting a thousand acres on public land in Linn County in five years. They just hit the five-year mark and are at 1,100 acres. The goal now is to plant 75,000 “mini prairies” along Linn County roadways.
The Monarch Research Project has donated trees to schools and other organizations, including UnityPoint Health and Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids. About a dozen companies have purchased trees for employees through Planting Forward and the list is growing. Some of the companies that participated initially also plan to give trees to employees a second time.
“The first year it was critical that we got the word out about the importance of planting native trees and we did that,” McLeod says. “We’d like to keep planting 30,000 trees a year.”
Finding employers willing to participate hasn’t been a problem, McLeod adds. “Employers want to do good things for their employees and for their community. It’s a win-win to donate trees to your employees who then take them out in the community and plant them. Our companies have always been very community oriented. When you have a disaster like derecho, what better benefit could you give employees than to help them replace their trees?”