Presidio youth spearhead project to plant 25 trees in town

Presidio High School students Laisa Arevalo, Angela Ocon, Clarisa Villagran and Ramon Aranda spent a Saturday morning planting trees around Presidio as part of Project Homeleaf, an environmental activism club. Photo by Sam Karas.

PRESIDIO — Few teenagers would elect to get out of bed before noon on a Saturday, but here there were six, gathered in front of the Catholic Church at 9 a.m. sharp. They started by digging a knee-deep hole in the ground. A cottonwood sapling, fresh off a truck from Arizona, was placed in the dirt. 

They started filling the hole back in with a mix of potting soil and a plant food called Osmocote. “We wanna make sure the soil is really broken up, so it doesn’t rot,” said Matthew Boane, a Presidio High School teacher who had volunteered to help with the project. 

Next came a layer of dried leaves gathered from the fringes of the Santa Teresa parking lot. Vicente Bocanegra, a volunteer from the Young Life organization, wanted to know why. Presidio High School junior Ramon Aranda launched into an explanation of the nitrogen cycle, the process by which organic matter breaks down and feeds new life. What looks like dead stuff is really what we need to survive. You can tell, he explained, by the fact that a compost pile left to its own devices generates temperatures over 100 degrees.

Aranda is the brains of the operation. He was introduced to environmental science in the first grade, during an Earth Day presentation by Elvira Hermosillo. That presentation got him and his classmates hooked on recycling and the concept of caring for the planet. They’ve been active in recent months attending city meetings to fight for the Presidio recycling center, which is underutilized and viewed by some city officials as an unnecessary expense. Hermosillo, Aranda, and their crew feel differently. With a little bit of love, it could be a thriving operation. 

Saturday, though, was all about the trees. This was the team’s first weekend planting trees officially as Project Homeleaf, a club founded by Aranda in 2019. Its members are all ambitious science enthusiasts, Presidio-born and college-bound. The pandemic had put a damper on their meetings, but all the free time at home had led some of the members, like Adilene Porras, to take an interest in gardening and environmental activism. “It got me to focus more on things other than myself,” she said. “The world is changing fast, you know? We have to make some changes quick so we can keep the environment safe for the animals and for us.” 

As the first tree neared completion, the Project Homeleaf students opted not to fill the hole in all the way, leaving a well to be filled with water. They constructed a rim of dirt around the tree in a process reminiscent of building a sand castle, then decorated the circle with rocks found in the parking lot. 

Hermosillo squatted in the dust, taking candid photos. Bocanegra was responsible for turning the hose off and on as a small lake pooled around the tree’s trunk. The church bells rang, and the dogs across the street howled in response. 

That was Father Michael Alcuino’s cue to roll across the street astride the church’s ATV. He applauded the students for their hard work. “All it takes is a little water,” he said. “I think it’s gonna survive.” 

The kids left sign up sheets around town and on social media, advertising the tree-planting project to Presidio residents who could sign up to get a free tree planted. People from all walks of life started signing up. 

After they brushed some dirt off their jeans, it was on to the next planting site, at the home of Arian Velazquez-Ornelas, who serves on Presidio’s Tourism Board. They drove across town in parade formation, with the truck carrying the saplings in the lead. The branches of the baby trees waved in the wind like flags. 

Velazquez-Ornelas has a beautiful eucalyptus tree in her yard. Everyone picked up a leaf and crushed it to release its sharp, soothing scent. “My tree needed a friend,” she explained, gesturing toward an empty and sunbaked part of the yard. With a little care, someday her Project Homeleaf tree will provide some shade and anchor the soil. That’s a big deal, in a town so hot and sunny most of the year that stop signs on the back streets have been bleached white. 

The kids are experts by this point in the day, and wrap up this tree in thirty minutes flat. They left Velazquez-Ornelas with a detailed aftercare sheet. For the first two years of the tree’s life, it will require weekly maintenance and care, but then it’ll be self-sufficient. The biggest thing to watch for here in Presidio is drought. “If the temperature is in the 90s and the humidity is low, you may need to water every other day,” it says. 

The tree parade starts up again, headed toward the river. They wind down dirt roads to Edward Martin’s house, an acreage surrounded by farms in the shadow of Sierra de la Santa Cruz. Edward and his mother, Alma Martin, flip a coin—heads sycamore, tails cottonwood. 

Aranda explains that sycamores and cottonwoods were chosen because they’re well-suited to an arid climate, like in Arizona, where they’re grown. The trees themselves were donated from the Apache Corporation, and Project Homeleaf is working with the Big Bend Conservation Alliance and Presidio Public Works to plant trees all over town. While the kids are in school, Cesar Leyva and Jim Martinez have also been hard at work planting trees and installing irrigation systems. In total, 25 trees will go into the ground in Presidio. Beyond their environmental benefits, they’ll help beautify the city, Aranda said. 

Alma Martin has been watching the students’ progress on Facebook, and knew her son had been trying to plant more trees in his yard. He’d even put in a sycamore tree, but a neighbor’s goats got out and made a snack out of it. “I was like, ‘Hey, mijo, they still have a couple of trees!’” she said.

Alma Martin works at the Presidio driver’s license office, so she knows most of the Project Homeleaf kids through the process of watching them grow up and get learner’s permits. That’s how they hope to spread their message of environmental activism and positive thinking—by starting small, with people they know. “It’s a small town, everyone gets along and knows each other,” Aranda said. “That’s our biggest advantage.”