Jack Pines
These tiny seedlings in Michigan’s Au Sable State Forest were the first Global ReLeaf plantings in 1990.

IN 1990, A TREE WAS PLANTED in Au Sable, Mich., that was the first of 50 million trees and counting. It was the very first tree planted as part of the American Forests Global ReLeaf program, to address global challenges facing forests through local action. It was one of 23,000 trees planted in Au Sable State Forest that year. The next year, Global ReLeaf planted its first international trees in two areas in Hungary. Today, the program has planted trees in 45 countries, all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Some of these restoration sites were damaged by wildfires that burned too intensely after years of misguided fire suppression. Others have been damaged by strip mining or invasive species or have become fragmented habitat through which wildlife can’t move freely. But they all have at least one thing in common: They are not expected to regenerate on their own. They need a helping hand to regain their health. And the health of these ecosystems is connected to our health too, as more than half of the drinking water in the U.S. originates in forests, and forests clean our air and sequester carbon.

Just like Global ReLeaf forests, as varied as they are, all Global ReLeaf projects have something in common as well. They have all depended on our close collaborations with a diverse group of partners. We have partnered with the U.S. Forest Service; U.S. Bureau of Land Management; U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service; state parks, forests and wildlife areas; U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; Soil and Water Conservation Districts; nonprofit conservation and tree planting organizations; American Indian nations; the Natural Resources Conservation Service; counties; communities; and schools. In its 25th year, as we celebrate Global ReLeaf’s 1,000th project and the planting of our 50 millionth tree, we look back at some of the work we’ve done.

PROJECT: Kirtland’s Warbler Habitat Planting

TOTAL TREES: 1.7 million
PARTNERS: Michigan Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Forest Service

Kirtland's Warbler
Kirtland’s Warbler. Photo credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Midwest Region

That first tree in Au Sable would become one of more than 1.7 million jack pine planted in several projects throughout Michigan over the next 25 years to improve the habitat of the endangered Kirtland’s warbler. The Kirtland’s warbler is a very particular bird, to put it lightly. They breed and nest in only one species — jack pine. What’s more, they only select stands of jack pine between six and 22 years of age. This very specific habitat has suffered from the development of farms and roads and the suppression of fire that is critical for the pine’s reproduction. By 1951, the Kirtland’s warbler population of singing males was just 500. Today, things are looking up for the warbler. By 2011, the population of singing males had rebounded to 1,828. A visit to Hiawatha National Forest reveals jack pine of diverse ages that represent many different stages of this multi-year initiative. Trees planted in the early days of the project are being utilized by the warblers now, while recently planted seedlings hold the promise of future habitat for the birds. These seedlings will become increasingly important as climate change continues to push the warblers — and the jack pine — north.

PROJECT: Farmland Phase-Out and Revegetation

TOTAL TREES: 1.5 million
PARTNERS: Friends of the Wildlife Corridor, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

It may not be the oldest project, but our longest-running continuous project can be found in the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge where we have been planting trees for 18 consecutive years. Specifically, we have been restoring the talmulipan brushland, a dense mixture of trees and shrubs that serves as home for a number of wildlife species, including the endangered ocelot. In the U.S., ocelots are found only in South Texas. They have been listed as endangered since the 1970s when the population had dwindled to fewer than 50 animals. It’s not hard to see why.

American Forests staff and Volunteers standing in empty field with shovels
American Forests staff and volunteers from partner Jambu Footwear plant trees on former agricultural land in the Lower Rio Grande Valley in 2014.

A whopping 95 percent of this area’s forests were cleared for agricultural use, leaving only small bits of habitat cut off from one another. “The area was so heavily fragmented,” says Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge manager, Gisela Chapa, “somebody needed to provide restoration efforts so wildlife would have safe passage between one tract of land to another one.” American Forests was happy to join the cause. That first year, we planted more than 21,000 native trees on 100 acres and have since planted more than 1.5 million trees to create a wildlife corridor here so that animals, including birds, butterflies, snakes and tortoises, can move more freely through their range. Today, the ocelot population in the U.S. has rebounded to 80 – 100 ocelot. The cats have been observed in the restoration area, a sign that our efforts are paying off.

Watch the video about this project here.

PROJECT: Whatcom County ReLeaf

TOTAL TREES: 137,920
PARTNERS: Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association, Alcoa Foundation

Logs in a creek surrounded by newly planted trees
Newly planted seedlings along the stream bank are protected at a Whatcom County project site.

1999 was a good year for salmon. Oregon governor John Kitzhaber and the National Marine Fisheries Service dropped a legal fight to keep Oregon coastal Coho salmon from being added to the federal Endangered Species List. The fish was listed after an appeals court ruled against the state’s plan, which would have put the fish’s recovery in state hands. That year, Kitzhaber also issued an executive order that would include all state agencies in an effort to restore all salmon species. In 2015, the Coho salmon is still federally listed as endangered in parts of California and as threatened in many other parts of its range. Also in 1999, in Washington D.C., the Clinton administration pledged $100 million in federal support for restoration programs throughout the Pacific Northwest. So, salmon were having legal victories as the new millennium approached, but 1999 also marked the first year of our Global ReLeaf work with the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association (NSEA) in Whatcom County, Wash.

Coho Salmon underwater
Coho Salmon. Photo credit: Bureau of Land Management, Oregon and Washington

That year, we planted 13,700 trees across 20 acres there to improve stream habitat and increase salmon populations in lowland streams. It was one of three salmon habitat restoration projects Global ReLeaf undertook that year, but the project in Whatcom County would turn into a multi-year partnership. We joined NSEA four more times to plant a total of 47,920 trees by 2005. But, that turned out not to be the end of the story. In 2011, we teamed up with the Alcoa Foundation to form the Alcoa Foundation and American Forests Partnership for Trees Program. With Alcoa’s help, we not only returned to Whatcom County, but were able to plant more than 80,000 more trees at a number of different sites over the next five years. This year, we’re planting another 10,000 trees together as well as engaging more than 1,000 volunteers in riparian habitat restoration. It takes many years, but the salmon habitat of Whatcom County is heading ever upstream.

Watch the video about this project here.

PROJECT: Forest for Monarchs

PARTNERS: La Cruz Habitat Protection Project
TOTAL TREES: 1.08 million

Matther Boyer with a monarch butterfly
Forestscape trip leader Matthew Boyer with a monarch butterfly.

True to its name, Global ReLeaf does not only work to restore forests in the U.S. The program has planted trees in forests in need in 45 countries over the years, from Chile to China, Kenya to Korea. In 2015, we added Madagascar to the list. One of our longest running international projects, however, has been in our nation’s neighbor, Mexico. We have worked since 2006 in Michoacán, Mexico, to restore habitat for the monarch butterfly and — by doing so — preserve one of nature’s most mysterious and awe-inspiring phenomena. The beautiful monarch butterfly has intrigued scientists for decades, as the monarchs that make their way back to Michoacán in the fall have never actually been there before. They are the great grandchildren of the butterflies that left Mexico the previous spring for the journey northward. Mature butterflies only live for two to six weeks, so it takes multiple generations of butterflies to make the migrations northward each spring.

Monarch Butterflies in a tree
Monarchs gather on the oyamel firs.

However, the monarch butterflies that make their way south each year have some sort of superpower. They can live for up to seven months in order to survive the journey, make it through the winter and mate in the spring. Scientists have yet to figure out how they find their way back to the same wintering grounds year after year with no guide or familiarity with the route. What we do know is that when they get there, they depend on the oyamel fir forests for their wintering habitat. With our partner, La Cruz Habitat Protection Project, we have planted more than a million trees, mostly oyamel fir. Today, one of the major threats to monarchs is the use of pesticides on some of their preferred plants along the migration route. But, those who make it will always need healthy habitat to come home to, and we continue to protect and restore the oyamel forests of Michoacán. In 2013, Michoacán also became the site of our first Forestscape.

Jami Westerhold, Esq., is responsible for the strategic development and management of American Forests’ Forest Restoration programs, including Global ReLeaf and Endangered Western Forests. Jami has worked in the environmental and conservation arena for more than 10 years. Prior to joining American Forests, Jami served in U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders’ office, working on environmental issues. Previously, she worked for U.S. Senator John Barrasso, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and also developed a pilot program for the Bureau of Land Management that identified and located environmental features and has since been implemented agency-wide. Jami earned a Master of Environmental Law and Policy and Juris Doctor from Vermont Law School and holds a Bachelor of Arts in environmental studies from Green Mountain College.

Megan works to select, support and facilitate communication with on-the-ground partners for many of American Forests’ restoration activities. Prior to joining American Forests, Megan interned at a local United Way and worked for La Ceiba Microfinance Institution, a student-run microfinance nonprofit that works with impoverished communities in Honduras. While at La Ceiba MFI, she assisted with several rounds of field work and directed an initiative utilizing recycled, repurposed products to develop economic autonomy for local women in El Progreso, Honduras. She holds a dual Bachelor of Science degree in economics and environmental science from the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va. Megan has been working with American Forests for nearly four years and thoroughly enjoys the relationships she has built and the amazing ecosystem restoration work she has been a part of.