GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) — Joelle Teachey is the friendly face of trees.
She’s no “tree hugger,” but she probably wouldn’t object.
She’s planted solidly in the real world.
That’s the way she likes it – for her organization and for her trees, your trees.
About 17,000 trees, actually.
Teachey, executive director of TreesUpstate since 2007, says the organization’s mission is simple.
Plant, Promote and Protect Trees.
A non-profit that promotes the planting of trees might seem like the place for an ethereal idealist. Teachey is neither. In fact, she might describe herself as a math and science nerd.
She talks about trees with facts, not poetry. And she talks virtually non-stop because there’s a lot to tell and a lot to teach.
That doesn’t mean she isn’t excited.
“We’re planting trees and I can see the impact,” she says. “It’s like instant gratification. I enjoy the work. I enjoy the mission. I’m passionate about trees. I’m passionate about what we do.”
The obvious, though hard-to-measure, benefit is aesthetics. The back end: “That’s the data,” Teachey says. A mature tree can remove carbon dioxide from the air, equal to 11,000 miles of car emissions.
The shoe-string operation, with the equivalent of four full-time positions plus a board of directors, aims to plant trees, give away trees and educate the public, developers and governments about the benefits of trees, and the proper way to plant them.
Most Saturdays, from October through March, TreesUpstate staff and volunteers are planting trees someplace in and around Greenville County. In the early days, Teachey sometimes planted with just one board member and her son, Seth, now 16. (Her husband, Mike, also helps out.)
“We are mission-driven, and we are actually out there doing stuff,” she says.
A recent planting is near the Swamp Rabbit Café, off Cedar Lane Road.
“I love that planting,” she says. “The majority of the trees are evergreens, so that’s just a great example of the instant impact of a tree planting on a community.”
In past years, TreesUpstate had a tree-care crew of young people.
“High school students drove around in a truck together watering, fertilizing, pruning, mulching our trees. Because of COVID-19, we didn’t have them this past summer,” Teachey says.
Despite the limitations, TreesUpstate planted 1,025 trees this year with the help of 643 volunteers.
The organization has planted at least 800 trees each year of its existence — every tree an investment, each with a maintenance plan.
“The first thing we do, to make sure that our trees survive, is to plant them properly,” Teachey says. “A lot of times trees are not planted properly, and they’re not cared for properly.”
The watering of trees — like those on the county portion of the Swamp Rabbit Trail and in county parks — isn’t left to chance, Mother Nature, or a good Samaritan. “We actually water the trees,” Teachey explains.
TreesUpstate has two 300-gallon water tanks and a couple of trucks. “At this point, we sort of look like a non-profit landscaping company,” she says.
The work is necessary.
“We have this really alarming statistic from research from the USDA Forest Service. The average lifespan of an urban tree is only seven to 15 years,” she explains.
“Those trees should be living much longer. They fail early when they are not properly planted and maintained. Plus, you’ve got the wrong tree planted in the wrong place. You’ve got big trees in little spaces and nobody is there to water them.”
That’s why TreesUpstate was founded in 2005. (It was known as TreesGreenville until 2019.) When Teachey joined the organization, she was its only employee, and part-time at that. But from the start, she and the board of directors strategized in earnest.
When planting season came in October 2008, the organization launched two programs: The Legacy Tree Project and NeighborWoods.
The Legacy Tree Project focuses on planting trees that will live for generations, not just a couple of decades. The trees are appropriate to the Upstate, with medium-to-large canopies, and planted where they can survive for 100 years or more.
A streetscape, for example, is not necessarily the place for a Legacy tree, because the street may change through the years. Legacy trees are planted at parks and in green spaces, which could be in schools or neighborhoods.
Through NeighborWoods, trees are planted on private property and in communities.
“We work directly with residents to select the right tree for the right place,” Teachey says.
The plantings are usually in underserved areas – communities and individuals who don’t necessarily have money for trees.
“We recognized back in 2000, that there were tree inequity issues,” she says.
Tree inequity is a recognized term used to describe neighborhoods with little-to-no tree cover. “It just so happens that those areas, more often than not, are low- to moderate-income neighborhoods.”
The trees are planted to provide shade. “We all know that on a hot summer day, it’s hotter in the city than if you go to the woods,” Teachey explains.
Trees also reduce exposure to the sun and improve air quality, an issue for people with breathing problems or asthma who may have less access to medical care.
Trees (as listed on TreesUpstate.org):
Absorb carbon dioxide from the air and store carbon as wood. (Carbon dioxide traps heat in the atmosphere. Trees trap the carbon and release the oxygen.)
Help control stormwater. (Leaves deflect rain, and roots absorb water from the ground.)
Enhance property values.
Provide wildlife habitat.
In addition to the trees planted by TreesUpstate, thousands more are given away through Energy Saving Trees, a program administered by TreesUpstate and presented by Duke Energy.
Since 2017, people in Oconee, Anderson, Pickens, Greenville and Spartanburg counties have registered for and picked up 7,602 trees, along with instructions for planting them.
“If a tree fails at 15 years, we haven’t gotten a return on our investment,” she says.
Teachey isn’t speaking figuratively; each tree is tracked through software developed by the U.S. Forest Service.
The software, called i-Tree, calculates the long-term benefits of every tree. Those 7,602 trees will save 19 million kilowatt-hours of energy; store or avoid 26 million pounds of carbon; and filter 123 million gallons of stormwater.
The statistics add up to a 20-year cumulative benefit of more than $3.2 million.
Trees may save money, but they also cost money.
TreesUpstate purchases trees from local growers, using proceeds from grants, donations and fundraising.
“A lot of times people ask, ‘so, do people give you trees?’” Teachey explains. “No. A nursery is a small struggling business. People give us donations, and we buy trees.”
TreesUpstate is in the middle of its fundraising campaign, called Putting Down Roots, and donations are fewer because of COVID.
Teachey is blunt: Donate to TreesUpstate, instead of a national organization.
“Keep it local. Shop local. Donate local.”