by Rosie Kelly ’24 on April 28, 2023
“The right tree in the right place for the right reason” is the slogan for one of the most successful tree planting programs and community organizations on the Australian Tablelands. Providence College students who are studying abroad in Australia, along with other student volunteers, had the pleasure of spending a weekend with Trees for the Evelyn and Atherton Tablelands, learning about their tree planting, nursery, and most importantly their community. The Tablelands is home to the Australian rainforest, one of the oldest rainforests in the world, which is facing issues due to deforestation and climate change. TREAT was formed in 1982 by Joan Wright and Jeff Tracey, who felt the need to help reforest the land by increasing the stock of plants needed for reforestation. By collecting seeds and growing seedlings in the nursery, they were able to plant 2,778 trees in the first year.
Today, TREAT will plant up to 3,000 trees per planting session, culminating in roughly 100,000 trees annually. The tree planting cycle begins with TREAT’s special relationships with local landowners and the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, in which they can acquire land to rebuild the depleting rainforest. There are planting sessions every Saturday in the wet season and weekly meetings from 7 a.m. to noon year round. At the meetings, volunteers participate in tasks such as seed preparation, seed sowing, potting up/on of seedling stock, and plant maintenance. These tasks help support the growth of seedlings and the nursery which will then be planted on these Saturday mornings.
Volunteers with TREAT are able to get a better understanding of the social scene provided for the community. With over 400 current members,TREAT is one giant family; one member explained that it is the only volunteer organization he is a part of in which people continue to return year after year. Some volunteers have been with TREAT for upwards of thirty years. This is supported by the Australian practice of smoko, which is a mid-morning coffee break made for socializing. When asked about what they liked most about TREAT, volunteers unanimously answered that it is the ecological importance of restoring the rainforest and the friends they have made through their involvement.
TREAT’s determined work cycle begins with picking a site. For example, one program worked TREAT at Masseys Creek. The site is prepped to begin, a process that can range from a day’s work to a week-long operation. This process is not for the weak-minded: a plot ranges from 1,500 trees to nearly 3,000 and each hole is individually raked, dug, fertilized, and watered. At Masseys Creek, approximately 1450 holes were prepared for the following day.
In the afternoon, volunteers finished preparing to plant by adding water crystals to each fertilized hole. These are used in the dry season to ensure the trees are maintaining enough moisture. Fertilizer was also added to ensure the soil was adequate for planting. Additionally, it was very important to make sure the tree species were properly mixed around the property, so they can access a variety of nutrients in the soil and compete less for sunlight or canopy space. Picking the proper trees to border the plot was also crucial, as the edges of the forest are the most susceptible to damage. By increasing the density along the edges, they hoped to provide the plot with a stronger barrier to prevent cyclone damage. By implementing a diverse mix of trees and fruit, TREAT hopes to promote an increase in the local fauna. One example of this is the growing cassowary population within the tablelands. Volunteers felt lucky to encounter over thirteen of the prehistoric-looking birds; however, they have rarely been seen in years past. One of the TREAT workers said the most rewarding part of his job is seeing cassowary, because it proves they are successfully returning the land to its natural state.
On the final day, it was time for planting. Volunteers crawled through the mud, making sure each hole was drained and properly filled in. They were able to converse with local landowners to get a better understanding of TREAT’s benefits to their property value. For example, it prevents erosion, provides a self-diversifying ecosystem with pollinators/seed spreaders, and is easier to maintain than farmland.
For the people of Atherton, nothing beats Friday mornings at the TREAT nursery. With a thriving social scene, educational opportunities, and environmental benefits, TREAT has become a local hotspot to unify the community. Each Friday, around 45 volunteers of all ages and backgrounds arrive with baked goods, seeds, and a passion to make a difference. A key to this is the communication taking place within the community rather than from a higher-up. Many of the landowners take comfort in knowing that the information and advice were coming from fellow farmers. This aspect brought together the community faster than any government project could have. When asked what keeps volunteers coming back to TREAT, some offered joking answers, such as “There’s nothing better to do when you’re retired!” while others explained they found the job they never knew they needed.
The wide range of opportunities and skill sets is also crucial to allowing TREAT to open its doors to all people. One mother and her two young children ran free around TREAT, taking up any tasks they could get ahold of. On the other end of the spectrum, there was a group of ladies living in a nearby retirement home who explained that they no longer have the energy to go to the tree plantings but are grateful to sit and pot, knowing their job is just as important in the tree cycle.
Education is also a drawing factor for the community, which was clearly seen on the large bulletin board in the nursery. There is a range of classes, volunteer opportunities, and other shared interest groups that are open to the public.
It was clear that these people were not just going through the motions, but understood the science behind what they were doing. For some people the processes are beneficial to their own property; for example, if a person brings in seeds, they can take a tree sapling back to their property in exchange, diversifying their land. Many of the longest members began as farmers or landowners looking to revegetate their property.
At the end of the three-day planting process, it was hard for the volunteers to say goodbye. They had grown trees, relationships, and a desire to make a difference. They believe that this is not a job or a chore: it is a rewarding family with shared interests and a passion to save the rainforest.
This article was written by Rosie Kelly ’24 in collaboration with Merrill Willis of San Diego State University and Carly Burns of the University of Maryland.