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Volunteers plant trees to restore canopy in Madison Heights

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published June 19, 2020


MADISON HEIGHTS — Over the years, the canopy of Madison Heights has been steadily whittled away as infrastructure projects took down trees. Recently, a group of volunteers assisted by the nonprofit ReLeaf Michigan planted new trees to bring back the greenery.

Based in Ann Arbor, ReLeaf Michigan focuses on tree planting and education. The statewide organization works with communities and groups throughout the state to restore urban tree canopies while educating the public on the value of trees and how to select, plant and maintain them. To date, they have planted more than 30,000 trees in 400 communities.

Madison Heights City Councilwoman Emily Rohrbach joined the group’s board of directors in 2018 and has been working closely with them to develop their fundraising abilities.

“When I first ran for council, unsuccessfully in 2017, I ran on the idea that the tree canopy in Madison Heights is in danger of being lost,” Rohrbach said. “Since then, I was able to connect ReLeaf Michigan with the city of Madison Heights, working with (Mayor Pro Tem) Roslyn Grafstein, the Environmental Citizens Committee and city staff to bring this first tree-planting project here this year.”

The planting took place the first week of June, on Moulin Avenue, totaling 32 trees that included a mix of white oak, tulip, redbud and maple.

“This street is going to have a beautifully diverse tree canopy in a few years,” Rohrbach said. “Because ReLeaf is an organization led by master arborists, the proper planting and care for these trees is extremely important to the organization. To that end, volunteers are given a detailed demonstration on how to properly plant trees and care for them.”

Due to the current COVID-19 crisis, volunteer groups were limited to individuals from the same household, and masks were required when working near anyone not from their household. One of ReLeaf’s master arborists, Marvin Pettway, was on-site to oversee the process. The city has also committed to a watering schedule to ensure the trees thrive.

Rohrbach explained that, during the last 15 years, many streets and waterlines throughout the city were completely redone, and this resulted in the loss of many neighborhood trees, either because they needed to be cut down to make room for water mains under the easement or because their roots were cut and that caused them to become unhealthy and die.

“When this work began, the city did not have a plan to replace trees that were lost. Since then, the city has committed to replacing trees lost with new road construction, but there still wasn’t a plan to replace the trees that were lost before that policy was implemented,” Rohrbach said. “Now we are working on a plan to identify ‘hot spots’ in the city that are in need of a tree replacement program, and are working with groups like ReLeaf Michigan and identifying outside funders like Holistic Industries and Alternative RX, who are committing funds to replacing trees.”

Rohrbach has lived in the community for 12 years now and has seen the majority of trees on her own street lost during an infrastructure project.

“I can attest to how much of an impact the loss of those trees is felt by residents,” she said. “Our home cooling bills increased, our lawns sizzled in the sun and spending time outdoors was less pleasant. Studies show that neighborhoods with more trees are safer and everyone is healthier.”

The planting involved about 30 volunteers, plus two arborist leaders from ReLeaf Michigan. Volunteers included Moulin Avenue residents — about six households — as well as about 10 individuals from the Madison Heights Men’s Club, and various individuals from the community.

“Our tree canopy is a vital part of the city and is a distinctive feature that attracts people to our neighborhoods. Unfortunately, too many neighborhoods have seen their tree canopy decimated due to tree pests, illness or construction,” Rohrbach said. “When this city was first established, and homes were erected, almost every house had a silver maple tree planted in the easement in front. Silver maples were often chosen at that time because they grow quickly and are nice shade trees. However, they have about a 50-year healthy lifespan when planted in an urban environment. Other trees planted in the city around the same time have also faced issues — ash trees were decimated by the emerald ash borer, oak wilt took many trees, and Dutch elm disease took many elm trees.”

Now the effort has begun to restore that canopy. For Grafstein, the mayor pro tem, this was her first project with ReLeaf Michigan, although not her first time planting trees. In the fall of 2017, Grafstein accompanied the mayor, Brian Hartwell, to Monroe Park to plant a tree there, and another on Moulin Avenue with her husband. On Arbor Day 2019, she helped plant a tree at Wildwood Park, and she spoke with the Department of Public Services about holding a big event for Arbor Day 2020. It was originally scheduled for April, then May, and now finally, 32 trees were planted in early June.

“I have spoken to many people on or near Moulin, and when the trees came down, they stopped running or walking in the area due to lack of shade,” Grafstein said. “We grow up hearing how trees clean the air we breathe; they help reduce smog and enhance the respiratory health of a community. Trees naturally promote greater physical activity and reduce stress, while improving quality of life. With everything going on in the world, we need more trees to help with all these issues.”