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Tree Corps on track to plant 10,000 seedlings this year; half toward Mike Hall Tree Project

Volunteers with the Tree Corps plant seedlings during an April work day at ParkLands Lexington Preserve. The work is part of the Mike Hall Tree Project, which adds 5,000 trees to the site.
Michele Steinbacher
/
WGLT
Tree Corps volunteers plant seedlings during an April work day at ParkLands Lexington Preserve. The work is part of the Mike Hall Tree Project that will add 5,000 trees to the site.

On a recent April Tree Corps work day, volunteers gathered at the ParkLands Lexington Preserve, ready to plant.

Some volunteers carried satchels of seedlings and marker flags. Others held long tree-planting tools called dibbles.

Kendra Paitz, of Bloomington, was among those working at ParkLands that morning. This marks her second year volunteering with the corps. Last spring, she learned a lot about planting trees.

“So that was my first experience with a dibble bar — or even hearing that term,” she said.

For Paitz, curator and director of University Galleries at Illinois State University, volunteering with Tree Corps is a way to enjoy being outdoors, while also giving back to the community.

This spring, she’s bringing her daughter along on work days. Mia Paitz attends Bloomington Junior High School. Now 12, she’s old enough to help out, her mother said.

“This is the third row that we’re working on today,” said Mia, settling a seedling into a newly dug hole — and saying she was having fun.

A group of Tree Corps volunteers use dibbles to dig holes in April, 2023, as they plant seedlings at the Mike Hall Tree Project, an effort to grow 5,000 new trees at the Parklands' Foundation Lexington Preserve.
Michele Steinbacher
/
WGLT
A group of Tree Corps volunteers use dibbles to dig holes in April, 2023, as they plant seedlings at the Mike Hall Tree Project, an effort to grow 5,000 new trees at the Parklands' Foundation Lexington Preserve.

The group chooses native trees, said Ecology Action Center Executive Director Michael Brown.

“We have thousands of these native bare-root seedlings that we’ve prepared ahead of time — a nice mix of oaks, hickories, pecans, hazelnuts,and other native species,” he said.

Tree Corps wants to plant 100,000 trees across McLean County within a decade. That’s 10,000 trees a year, for at least 10 years in a row, said Brown.

Despite the lofty goal, the plan is working.

“Here we are in year three. It’s been wildly successful, so far,” he said, adding Tree Corps already has surpassed 24,500 plantings. So, it’s not only on target, it’s surpassing its goal.

Tree Corps, partners mission grounded in science

For Tree Corps to be successful, the center has partnered with many community groups. Besides ParkLands, Heartland Community College, and the University of Illinois Extension Master Naturalists are involved.

Trees help provide watershed protection, increase wildlife habitat, and offer opportunities for recreation areas.

But organizers say the most important reason to plant more trees is their public health benefit — helping offset air pollution.

“The back story behind all this (tree planting) is a lot of information and data on air quality locally,” said Brown.

Ecology Action Center Executive Director Michael Brown prepares a bare-root seedling, for a tree planting work day in April 2023 at the ParkLands Lexington Preserve.
Michele Steinbacher
/
WGLT
Ecology Action Center Executive Director Michael Brown prepares a bare-root seedling, for a tree planting work day in April 2023 at the ParkLands Lexington Preserve.

The Bloomington-Normal community is close to exceeding National Ambient Air Quality Standards for ozone, an air quality pollutant. That can have real-life impacts for people, he said.

“Ozone is very closely correlated with public health issues such as asthma, respiratory disease, COPD, a whole host of respiratory issues,” he said.

Tree equity and environmental justice

Some areas of the community are in need of something Brown calls tree equity.

Data collected on air pollution in the area shows certain parts of the community are facing poorer air quality than others. That becomes an environmental justice issue, he said.

Bloomington’s west side, and the north side of Normal are two of the more affected areas. So the Tree Corps plans smaller, more precise planting projects throughout those spaces this spring.

Now in the works is a broad Community Energy Strategic Plan that should provide more details on local pollution, and how best to tackle it, said Brown.

In the meantime, he intends to keep recruiting volunteers for the Tree Corps, and focus on meeting the group’s goals. The project now has a dedicated coordinator, so Brown says he expects the program to grow.

“And so from here, it should even get better, get more organized, and maybe even go bigger in the future,” he said.

Conservation-minded public servant Hall remembered

The biggest tree planting this year is the Mike Hall Tree Project, at the ParkLands preserve.

Half this year’s Tree Corps batch — or 5,000 trees — will be planted as a memorial for the longtime public servant and conservationist, who was 67 when died in January after facing cancer.

Mike Hall
Courtesy
Mike Hall

He worked more than two decades for the Town of Normal, most of those as Public Works director. A few years after his 2010 retirement, Hall took on a management role at ParkLands Foundation. For many years, he also served on the board of the Ecology Action Center.

This spring's volunteers at the Tree Project site in Lexington have included Hall’s family, including his wife, Kris Hall.

She called the preserve a perfect setting to honor him, Brown recounted.

“It’s right next to the highway — and Mike was an engineer. So, we’ve got the traffic, and we’ve got nature. And we’ve got trees and we’ve got people out there having a good time and making it a better place,” he said.

Tree Corps asks: Dig in your pockets, dig in the soil

Key to making the Tree Corp sustainable is a mix of volunteerism and philanthropy.

The cost to plant one tree is about $5. But that adds up. Some quick math shows the Tree Corps needed $50,000 for this year alone.

Besides its appreciation for large group and corporate donations, the center’s director said Tree Corps wants people to rethink the gift-giving concept.

A donation can be made to Tree Corps to recognize special occasions such as a birthday or holiday. And, there are memorials to honor someone who has died.

Donations are imperative to keep the program moving forward. But so are volunteers. If seedlings aren't planted in time for spring rains, they won’t survive.

Brown also encourages individual volunteers — both experienced and novice — to look into the Tree Corps work days this spring.

That’s how Denise Mendoza of Normal found herself at the Lexington Preserve . She said people shouldn’t let a lack of experience stop them.

“This is my first time, and I’m really happy because I really enjoy this. And we planted, like, 50 trees today,” she said.

Just volunteering a few hours can help the nonprofit with its planting goals, said Brown.

Upcoming tree planting days include May events at the ParkLands Lexington Preserve, and at Funks Grove off Route 66. Learn more about the program, and other Ecology Action Center efforts at the organization's website.

Michele Steinbacher was a WGLT correspondent, joining the staff in 2020. She left the station in 2024.