Restoring the earth by planting trees

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

This past winter, the cold sent people who heated with wood scrambling for additional supplies. We nearly consumed the ample supply we had stored from dead trees on our property. We were one wheelbarrow away from joining the chorus of those asking others if they knew of anyone still having firewood to sell.

The existence of a cold winter is used by critics or humorists as evidence that climate change is not occurring. Yet, the Third National Climate Assessment indicates the long-term threat is increasing, as evidenced by more frequent storms of greater intensity.

The assessment indicates the composition of the Midwest forests will continue to change as temperatures rise and droughts and disease take their toll on our woodlands. Some 17 species, mostly associated with northern Wisconsin — such as paper birch, quaking aspen, balsam fir and black spruce — are expected to shift to Canada and be replaced by oaks and pines.

On a global basis, forests capture and store more carbon than they emit. This ratio could change as insect outbreaks, diseases and drought take their toll. Plans to use trees as a fuel source to generate electricity on a large scale would also reduce their role as carbon sinks.

It is one thing to use the waste from trees to supply wood pellets for local consumption, such as we saw in Sweden, but it is an entirely different matter to produce a significant portion of the electricity society now consumes.

According to Marvin Richard in a guest column in the Detroit Free Press a few years ago, there were plans for a biomass plant in Traverse City, Mich., that would burn trees to generate electricity, requiring clear-cutting 2,500 acres a year, or 4 square miles, to produce 10 MW.

Richard’s article reminds us of a study done about a decade ago considering the possibility of cutting trees along both sides of the Mississippi River in Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa to supply a biorefinery. The study raised doubts as to whether the vast stretch of woodland could support even one operating plant.

Instead of massive tree consumption, we need to initiate a major tree-planting program to overcome the feelings of helplessness regarding climate change. Bill Rees, who initiated the ecological footprint concept, recently suggested to a Vancouver audience that a major tree-planting program would be a very worthwhile undertaking. A 10- to 15-year planting effort to properly restock their existing Canadian forests would offset the carbon releases from living their everyday lives.

While not a total solution, it is a tangible effort with other important benefits. It increases biodiversity, helps to moderate the water cycle, and provides the resources to renew the forest industry.

A regional project of the Rock River Trail Initiative to restore the oak woodlands along the Rock River has been taking place for the past three years.

We acquired some oak seedlings through the Trail Initiative to plant along the Kyte Creek just before it empties into the Rock River. The timing was excellent in that a week of rains should prove very beneficial to their becoming established.

By planting trees, we gain the satisfaction of knowing we are contributing to the well-being of existing and future generations.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail

From the May 7-13, 2014, issue

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