Reforest the Bluegrass
A successful volunteer program in Lexington, KY
Stormwater runoff is a major problem in Lexington,
KY, which is located about 75 miles south of Cincinnati and 75 miles
east of Louisville. Increasing suburban growth and a population of
270,000 have stressed the aging infrastructure of the city’s storm sewer
system. Unlike many other cities, Lexington does not have a stormwater
utility, under which property owners must pay for the amount of paved
surface on their land. Budget cuts and the lack of this financial
resource have slowed repairs.
|Scouts earn merit badges for planting trees.
These two drawbacks doubtless affect many cities’
ability to cope well with stormwater runoff. Lexington has another
factor that makes it unusual. Known for its Thoroughbred horse farms,
the countryside features green pastures with gently rolling hills,
neatly mowed and edged in white fences. These beautiful farms influence
how suburban homeowners maintain their lawns.
David Gabbard, civil engineer for the Lexington-Fayette County
Urban-County (merged) Government (LFUCG) calls this custom “the
Bluegrass aesthetic.” He explains that in central Kentucky, “citizens
expect creeks to be seen and heard. Streambanks are mowed down to the
There are plenty of trees in the Bluegrass, but they line fencerows
and driveways, not the banks of streams. The soil of central Kentucky is
rich in limestone, which contributes to strong bones in the horses who
graze on the grass growing in it. Only 7% of streams in the United
States are limestone-based, but in the Bluegrass, the upper limestone
layer has a very high phosphorus content. This extra phosphorus measures
0.2 to 3 milligrams per liter of stormwater runoff.
Because algae can form where phosphorus measures 0.42 milligram per
liter of water, it quickly grows in Bluegrass streams and their
tributaries. It is particularly prevalent in the warmer waters where
there is no shading tree canopy.
Past stormwater management simply involved channeling water away
without considering how its quality deteriorated the farther it moved
downstream. Besides urban stormwater runoff, other nonpoint sources of
pollution in Fayette County are farming, horses, and cattle.
Responsible for seeing that Lexington meets the EPA’s Phase II
stormwater guidelines, Gabbard was pondering his limited financial
options when he attended a conference on water quality in 1998. A
speaker explained how effective trees could be in reducing water
pollution and runoff. When he added that the trees could be planted by
community volunteers, Gabbard knew he had found a solution that would
improve both the stormwater situation and the quality of local water.
As soon as he returned to work, Gabbard met with David Swenk,
Lexington’s first urban forester. Swenk had just assumed his new post,
but he was enthusiastic about the proposed project. His previous job had
been in timber reclamation in Oregon, so he knew firsthand the benefits
“The essence of the Clean Water Act is to involve people at all
levels in doing something proactive, in protecting their environment,”
Gabbard explains. “With the whole project’s concept, you’re addressing
different elements of the Clean Water Act, public involvement, and
Even so, Gabbard and Swenk met some resistance when they first
proposed Reforest the Bluegrass. Some city employees claimed that even
with the promise of a free lunch, not enough volunteers would show up.
Then the city would have to pay money it hadn’t budgeted for to get the
rest of the trees planted.
The Parks and Recreation Division was involved from the beginning
because it was the only division of local government that owned and
maintained long stretches of stream. Some of the Parks employees were
reluctant to plant more trees. They preferred open spaces that required
less maintenance and could easily be converted into fields for softball,
soccer, or other team sports. As Gabbard recalls, “One disgruntled
employee went so far as to say, ‘We don’t need a lot of trees. Trees
fall on people.’”
Despite the skepticism, and partly because the city’s finances didn’t
allow for any other solution, Gabbard and Swenk received permission to
stage the first Reforest the Bluegrass. The project was created as a
cooperative effort between the LFUCG Division of Parks and Recreation,
the Division of Streets and Road (Urban Forester), and the Division of
Planning (Storm Sewers).
|An unexpected but welcome 600 volunteers showed up on the first day of the first event.
Because their proposed project did not have
overwhelming support, Swenk and Gabbard figured that the first year’s
outcome would determine whether or not the event continued. For the
first Reforest the Bluegrass in 1999, they chose a site that had not
previously been open to the public. A failure there would be less likely
to be noticed or to impact possible future programs.
The University of Kentucky (UK) was converting agricultural land, its
Coldstream Research Farm, into an academic and commercial research
park. Part of the land could not be developed because it was on a
floodplain. UK gave this area to the LFUCG for restricted use, in
passive recreation, such as trails or riparian forests.
Swenk wanted to use paid migrant laborers to plant the tree
seedlings. Gabbard held out for volunteers, thinking they would take
more care with the planting, and the money saved could be used to buy
Gabbard wanted citizens involved for another reason. They would have
“a sense of ownership of the project, and that support is critical in
the early stages of forest growth—when the project looks ‘weedy’ and
To educate the public about the new tree planting project and recruit
volunteers, Swenk embarked on a local speaking tour. He spoke to
corporations, the local chapter of the Sierra Club, the councils of the
Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts, and any community organization that was
willing to listen to him.
Corporate sponsors, including Kentucky American Water Co., Kentucky
Utilities, and Lexmark, committed to helping the project with both
financial donations and employee volunteers. Print and broadcast media
publicized the event, asking volunteers to register in advance.
When 600 volunteers showed up on the first day, Swenk and Gabbard
knew that their project was a success. At the end of the day,
now-retired Parks Division Supervisor John McClellan pulled alongside
them in his truck. He said, Gabbard recalls, “Guys, this is awesome. I
didn’t know it would be so great. Whatever you need for next year,
you’ve got it.”
The initial Reforest the Bluegrass in 1999 was held on more than one
day. When it was finished, more than 1,200 volunteers had planted 25,000
tree seedlings over 45 acres of floodplain. The event had made more
favorable impact on the local environment than even the most optimistic
people involved had expected. Every aspect was better than the
organizers had hoped for.
Not only were there plenty of volunteers, but they came from diverse
groups within the community: scouts, Sunday school classes, fraternities
and sororities, various environmental groups such as the Sierra Club
and the Nature Conservancy, and families.
The format of Reforest the Bluegrass has remained essentially the
same as it was that first year. The event lasts from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on
a Saturday in April. Lunch, snacks, and Reforest the Bluegrass T-shirts
are provided for volunteers courtesy of local sponsoring companies.
University of Kentucky graduate students in forestry serve as team
leaders, taking groups of 20 to 25 volunteers to planting areas. The
students show the volunteers how to plant the tree seedlings (assorted
native species) using Dibble bars, planting bars with wedge-shaped
blades. Because there is no minimum age limit, children as young as
toddlers plant trees, with some help from their parents.
Organizers spray paint a grid so that volunteers will plant trees
evenly spaced. The pink and green paint grids designate areas for tree
species that tolerate wet roots and those that must be planted farther
away from the stream. The seedlings for each volunteer are in bags with
the corresponding appropriate colors.
In succeeding years, the same diversity of volunteer groups has
continued, and many of the same individuals and families come back every
year to plant more trees. Even when the event has coincided with cold
rainy weather, at least several hundred volunteers have shown up.
“Rain is perfect weather for planting bare root tree seedlings,” says
Timothy Queary, Lexington’s current urban forester, “but it’s not
perfect for volunteers.” He, Gabbard, and John Saylor—an LFUCG arborist
and Reforest the Bluegrass’s director—thought they might have to
postpone Reforest the Bluegrass earlier this year.
The appointed Saturday dawned not just with rain but also with heavy
downpours and cold temperatures. When their truck with supplies got
stuck in the mud, the three organizers wondered if this was an omen.
They decided to “at least get the tent set up, so if anyone comes
they’ll have a place to get out of the rain. If no one shows up by 10 or
11, then we’ll cancel,” recalls Queary.
To their surprise, at 9:00 a.m. 50 to 60 people were there, ready to
go. Most of them wore rainsuits, but a few volunteers had improvised
with large plastic trashbags worn over their clothes.
“They kept coming all day, over 400 of them,” Queary says. “If it had
been sunny, we’d have had twice the amount of volunteers, or more.”
The aforementioned tent, which measures 40 by 100 feet, is the
organizers’ secret weapon against bad weather and tired volunteers. They
got it for the second Reforest the Bluegrass and soon found it to be
cost-effective. Having the tent gives volunteers a place to sit down,
warm up if the weather is chilly, and have something to eat and drink.
Then, Queary says, “They’ll go back and plant some more trees instead of
The tent is also used as a display and education area for Bluegrass
PRIDE (Personal Responsibility in a Desirable Environment), the Sierra
Club, Fayette County 4-H, and other environmental groups. These people
also have the opportunity to talk about their organizations and invite
Reforest the Bluegrass volunteers to become involved with them. By
discussing such topics as recycling, lawn care, and proper disposal of
hazardous household waste, these environmental volunteers educate the
public about the city’s ongoing problems with stormwater. They reinforce
the message of how the tree planting is helping create a cleaner
After planting trees, volunteers receive educational material to take
home along with their Reforest the Bluegrass T-shirts. Kentucky
Utilities, one of the event’s major sponsors, gives them tree seedlings
to plant at home. Some of the children’s activities are also in the
Reforest the Bluegrass has proven to be a wonderful event for
families. Some of the children who participate will stay here and
someday show their children the trees they planted when they were
little. Saylor recalls bringing his daughter in her stroller to watch
the activities. This year, in a pre-event publicity photo session, young
Kathryn showed some members of the media how to plant a tree.
|Over 130,000 trees have been planted through Reforest the Bluegrass.
Queary thinks Reforest the Bluegrass has become such a
success “because it’s family-friendly. That may be the only opportunity
a child, growing up in a city, will have to do something good for the
environment, to plant a tree.”
He notes that “many of the teenagers and young adults who come to the
event have never planted a tree in their lives. They grew up in an
apartment or where a landscaper did all of the planting.”
Children are allowed to plant trees, if they wish, and other
activities just for them are available. Making a birdhouse to take home
is always popular. LFUCG employees show the children how to assemble the
precut wooden forms. Many of the kids like to make pinecone
birdfeeders. Smucker’s donates Jif peanut butter, made in its Lexington
plant, to fill the feeders.
Sometimes the kids are given empty trash bags and encouraged to pick
up litter, an activity they turn into a game. Pony rides and a petting
zoo were included in the early years of Reforest the Bluegrass but
haven’t been on the schedule for some years. The children seem to have
enough to do without them.
Most children, especially those of elementary age and younger, come
with their parents. Saylor says he has noticed an increasing number of
grandparents with grandchildren. Many scouts (sometimes entire troops)
show up in uniform with their leaders, for participating counts toward
Of a community tree planting event, Saylor says, “A lot of folks just
see the work involved and say, ‘If we just do it ourselves or hire it
out, it’ll be quicker.’ But it’s relatively easy to gather volunteers,
and that gets them behind the project. They’re in the loop.” Saylor
thinks the main reason for the program’s success is that “it’s just the
opportunity to plant a seed for the future.”
Reforest the Bluegrass’s statistics show what a success the program is:
- More than 5,000 volunteers have participated.
- More than 150 acres of floodplains were restored.
- Over 130,000 tree seedlings were planted.
- Less than $105,000 of local government funds were spent, plus $75,000 of donated funds.
- If the projects had been carried out by paid workers, the cost would have been $750,000.
Volunteers at Reforest the Bluegrass plant trees not only along
streambanks but also within detention basins. In 2002, along Welling Way
and at Wellington Park, citizens planted thousands of trees in two
large detention basins. “We need to plant trees in these basins because
trees uptake methane and cool the water,” Gabbard explains.
|Volunteers plant trees using Dibble bars, planting bars with wedge-shaped blades.
To people who protest that the trees’ roots take up
room and thus decrease the detention basin’s capacity, Gabbard says this
idea is not true. “Once the trees grow, their roots penetrate the
compacted soil and loosen it. The roots absorb water, too, so there’s
more storage volume in the detention basin [with the trees than without
Planting trees in older detention basins as a retrofit flood
management practice has proven to be cost-effective. The city engineers
have dubbed this the ReNEW Project.
Queary calls the Wellington project “one of the best examples of
Reforest the Bluegrass.” For years the land had been owned by the R.J.
Reynolds Tobacco Co. Except for tobacco warehouses and a few buildings,
the property was vacant. Part of the land was leased for cattle farming.
The stream flowing through the area was not fenced to keep the cattle
out of it.
When the land was sold and divided for residential and commercial
use, a section was given to the city for a park. This section was the
one that had been used by the cattle. Their hooves had eroded the banks
of the stream, and its water was polluted.
Five years after the Reforest the Bluegrass event there, the tree
seedlings are growing up and the streambank is stabilizing. Queary says,
“The Wellington habitat has changed. There are a lot more species of
songbirds that were never there in the past.”
Reforest the Bluegrass has weathered one major setback. In 2000, a
contractor mowed the area, blatantly ignoring the recently planted tree
seedlings and their surrounding cardboard mats. He later claimed that he
thought they were trash. The local newspaper reported the unfortunate
incident, complete with photograph. Some volunteers complained that they
would not participate in the program again. Seedlings were replanted by
volunteers and city employees.
The organizers learned from this incident. Seedlings are now planted
within shiny black plastic mats, both for better visibility and to deter
growth of competing vegetation. Trees along the border of each section
are encased in protective plastic rings. All city departments are aware
of exactly where tree planting has been done.
The overall survival rate of Reforest the Bluegrass trees is a
phenomenal 75%. Gabbard’s instinctive feeling that people who care
enough to give up a Saturday morning and volunteer for their community
would take care to do the work well has proven to be accurate.
Reforest the Bluegrass follows the EPA’s Rule 2.3, Forming
Partnerships. It does so first with the other LFUCG agencies who have
been involved since the beginning. Another partnership has been formed
with the state government. The Kentucky Department of Forestry has
supplied both trees and workers. The partnerships with Bluegrass PRIDE,
the Sierra Club, and other organizations involved in protecting the
environment have brought in more dedicated volunteers to plant trees.
The corporate partners make the event possible on a scale large
enough to make a difference. Their donations of funds and employee time
allow the event to function smoothly for volunteers in registration,
parking, and meals.
Gabbard sums up Reforest the Bluegrass as a response to the Clean
Water Act by saying, “It’s about effectiveness. Doing something to be
doing something because you’re required to do something isn’t compliant
with the Clean Water Act.”
The story with trees is “what you don’t see,” says Gabbard. “Most
people think that tree roots extend 10 or more feet. But the roots of
most trees, even the tallest ones, are less than 3 feet deep.”
What makes trees so efficient are their horizontal root systems,
extending far beyond the drip zone (the farthest width of the leaves). A
single tree is not an effective means of preventing a streambank from
eroding. But when trees are planted in a stand, as they are in the
Reforest the Bluegrass program, their root systems “are interconnected,”
Gabbard explains. “The trees support each other. That’s the concept
Tree root systems create what Gabbard calls “a microdetention
system.” At first the ground is smooth on the surface. As the tree and
its roots grow larger, “the surface develops microdetented areas that
will capture sediment, debris, nutrients, and pollution.”
As an Urban Forester, Queary is, admittedly, pro-trees. “All of the
benefits of trees combined are much better than a concrete flume,” he
notes. Queary terms the stabilization of streambanks as “probably the
most significant benefit of planting trees.” The shade that trees
provide over streams will create a more diverse aquatic habitat, he
Queary cites research by Kim Coder, Ph.D., of the University of
Georgia. Coder determined that “for every 5% of tree cover added to a
community, stormwater runoff is reduced by approximately 2%,” Queary
He acknowledges the ongoing problem municipal engineers have with
stormwater. “They have to think regionally and long-term, even globally.
The days of piping stormwater off of the property and letting the
person downstream worry about it are over.”
Reforest the Bluegrass has proven how cost-effective and beneficial a
tree planting program can be for a community. Streams listed on the
state’s 303(d) list of impaired waters are being restored. Landscaping
habits of residents are gradually changing as they have learned what
they can do to protect water quality.
Esther Moberly, program manager of Bluegrass PRIDE,
says that Reforest the Bluegrass sets an example. “Planting trees and
not mowing to the edge of streams is easy [for anyone] to do. You can
help the environment without having to get an architect or an engineer.”
The program thwarts citizen apathy by involving members of the public
in an enjoyable and meaningful event. It educates them, through
participation on the day of the event and through reading material they
take home, on the detrimental effects of stormwater and pollution on
their environment. And that public involvement and education well
satisfy requirements of the EPA’s National Pollutant Discharge
Elimination System Phase II guidelines.
Author's Bio: Margaret Buranen writes from Lexington, KY, on the environment and business, for several national publications.