by Lanny Brannock
Reforestation today has become a thing to do for citizens across the Commonwealth. Volunteers are able to plant trees, listen to some music, get a free t-shirt and food and spend some quality time with their family connecting with the earth.
It wasn’t always like that, however. Nearly two decades ago, Reforest the Bluegrass was just a great idea beginning to bud, far from what it was to become.
It began on a blustery day in April 1999 in Lexington, Kentucky, after a news conference with Mayor Pam Miller. Thousands of bare-root seedlings were planted that day by volunteers in Cold Stream Park, then a brand new 225-acre park off Newtown Pike.
But it wasn’t until the following year, that Reforest the Bluegrass would really take off.
It was in the forest at Masterson Station Park where the crown jewel of reforestation would take place, as 45,000 seedlings (more than a quarter of the total trees planted by the project to date), would be put into the ground over three days in 2000 and 2001.
This was urban forester Tim Query’s first event, and through trial and error, Reforest the Bluegrass was refined into a sophisticated tree-planting event.
“When we first started out, it was nothing but a registration table and maybe a couple of pop-up tents,” Query said. “And over the course of time, as we dealt with bad weather in the spring, we learned to rent a large circus tent, put everybody in a large tent. It’s almost become a festival now,” Query said.
Two decades later, the project is still ongoing and the efforts are paying off. Air quality has improved. Recreational opportunities abound. Children who once helped plant those trees nearly 20 years ago with their parents have watched a forest grow from mere seedlings.
More than 136,000 tree seedlings have been planted, 185 acres of floodplains have been restored, and more than 15,500 volunteers have been involved with the project since 1999.
Query said the native seedling reforestation plantings in Masterson Station Park have become legendary for their success in changing the landscape.
“This area was completely open and we had volunteers by the hundreds come out and help reforest this area along the creek,” Query said. “And you can see today, almost twenty years later, it’s pretty hard to believe just a few short years ago this area was open fields, and with the help of our volunteers, it’s now a forest.”
Hackberry trees, silver maples, black locusts, American sycamore and other native seedlings were planted all along a small, open creek that ran along the edge of the 650-acre, multi-use park. The seedlings were purchased through sponsorships from the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet’s Division of Forestry nurseries.
The seedlings planted at Masterson Station had a survival rate of about 80 percent, which is about 15 percent above the average survival rate of the Reforest the Bluegrass project.
“It gives families an opportunity to bring their children out,” Query said. “What we see with volunteers is this is the first time they’ve ever planted a tree, even though it’s just a bare root tree seedling. I think it helps to teach the public about environmental issues and helping to protect the environment.
Query said within the first five years after Masterson Station was reforested, deer were seen once again on the property, within the city limits of Lexington. He said they wouldn’t be here without the efforts that were made.
“It improved the habitat. It improved the water quality of the creek by shading the creek,” Query said. “And it’s most certainly helping to increase the air quality in this area.”
Trails, nature walks and tree identification have all become commonplace because of the woods, making the park a “classroom,” of sorts for people interested in the environment and protecting it.
“Mountain bikers enjoy these kinds of areas because of the woods,” Query said. “We’ve seen people picnicking in the shady spots of the forested areas.”
With projects all over Lexington, including Liberty Park, Veterans Park, Shillito Park, Jacobson Park and others, Query said Reforest the Bluegrass has been so successful that it’s becoming harder to find space that needs reforestation.
“Every year we have a committee that sits down in the late fall and starts talking about where our event is going to be in the spring,” Query said. “And after twenty years of having successful events, we’re kind of running out of places to plant.”
The efforts have left volunteers with lasting memories.
“When you can come back with your family and maybe your children at the time, if they were young, those who planted these areas are now young adults and pretty amazing for them to be able to come back and say I planted a tree in this area, and now look at how big it is,” said Query.