Climate equity, beautification efforts to plant trees in lower socioeconomic areas of the Big Bend expand in second year 

John Moran from Tree Life Farms delivers 150 trees to Alia Gunnell (right) at West Texas Roots with Mark Morrison (center) giving a hand to help the unloading. West Texas Roots staged the trees at their property in Marfa before helping deliver them to Alpine, Fort Davis and Presidio for plantings throughout the month. Photo courtesy of Big Bend Conservation Alliance.

TRI-COUNTY — This fall, 150 new trees will be planted around the Big Bend region as a part of Big Bend Conservation Alliance’s Tree Equity initiative to bring lower socioeconomic areas, which typically lack more mature trees, greater health and climate benefits that result from established foliage. 

Last year marked the first tree distribution, with BBCA and partners giving out 75 trees to organizations in the Marfa, Presidio and Fort Davis areas. This year, the saplings — species that do well in the high desert climate including chinquapin oak, cedar elm and Mexican buckeye — are being distributed in the Alpine, Fort Davis and Presidio areas. 

“The whole project is focused on where trees are not typically found. How can we reorient who’s getting those trees so that we’re thinking about places that don’t have that shade?” said Shelley Bernstein, executive director of BBCA. “Or thinking about audiences where it might be more difficult for people to go and buy trees, because trees are pretty expensive.” 

The trees are donated to BBCA via a grant from the Apache Corporation. In addition to new trees, this year’s recipients are also getting bilingual planting and watering guides by Marfa resident Erik Bryn to help ensure their trees put down roots and last well into the future. West Texas Roots acts as a distributor and facilitator, helping BBCA get the trees to targeted areas. 

This year, the Jeff Davis County Food Pantry distributed 15 trees to food pantry clients that expressed interest, with most living in the Fort Davis area, according to Vicki Gibson, the pantry’s executive director. Last year the food pantry and BBCA sought to distribute trees to specific treeless areas, but due to occupants’ status as renters and not landowners, obtaining permission to plant trees was difficult. Still, the program was a success, said Gibson. 

“The [trees] that were planted last year, I think they’re all still alive and going, people took really good care of them. They have been enjoying them all year,” said Gibson. 

Gibson said the recipients this year were grateful to receive the trees, along with the seeds the food pantry gives out to enable them to grow their own food. The mental health benefits that come with tending to trees and gardens are a big payoff, said Gibson. 

“We do have a lot of gardeners among our food pantry clients,” she said. “Some grow their own food and some have trees or plants in their yard that they enjoy taking care of.” 

The food pantry currently has 666 individuals enrolled, which represent 270 households, or one third of the population of Jeff Davis County per the latest census data, said Gibson. 

Adolfo Razo receives donated trees planted in Saint Joseph Cemetery in Fort Davis recently. Photo courtesy of Big Bend Conservation Alliance.

Adolfo Razo, chairman of the Saint Joseph Cemetery in Fort Davis, planted trees he received from BBCA on a recently-acquired bare plot of land in the cemetery.

“We appreciated them very much. They’re planted there in the ground already. I’ll just water and get them started and maybe by next year, they will be green,” said Razo. 

The land was filled in with 20 oak saplings and four mountain laurels. Razo said the trees go a long way in beautifying the cemetery, and that the trees allow for more wildlife, birds and shade. He is hoping to create a small chapel for mass services at the cemetery in the near future and will ask for more trees next year, he said. 

In Alpine, BBCA is working with Sul Ross State University to bring student volunteers to plant native trees at the Alpine Retirement Homes, a subsidized housing community, this weekend.  Katy Williams, director of civic engagement and student assistance with the newly-established Student Affairs Office at Sul Ross, said the opportunity acts as a way for students to give back to the community and also learn about the tree equity issue which they may not be familiar with. 

“There’s a drastic difference between college age students and seniors who are retired. But hopefully through this service opportunity, they’ll be able to see similarities between each other, they’ll be able to see the differences of accessibility, what students have access to and what our elderly community doesn’t have access to,” said Williams. 

Williams is hoping 25 to 50 volunteers show up to help plant the trees, and plans to reach out to specific school departments that align with the project such as range and wildlife and biology clubs but will cast a wide net. Planting will take place at 8:20 a.m. November 12 at the Alpine Retirement Homes at 901 North Orange Street. Williams encourages anyone interested in volunteering to email her at [email protected]

BBCA and Sul Ross also coordinated with the City of Alpine and Keep Alpine Beautiful for the tree equity project. Keep Alpine Beautiful usually hosts a native tree giveaway in the fall thanks to a grant from the Apache Corporation, but since it did not receive the grant this year, the giveaway had to be paused.

“The City of Alpine/Keep Alpine Beautiful is excited to participate in the continued efforts to beautify Alpine by working with local partners,” said City Manager Megan Antrim and Keep Alpine Beautiful in a statement about the tri-county tree equity project. 

Last year, Presidio’s own Project Homeleaf — a youth-led environmental activism group — led the charge on the BBCA project, planting 25 sycamore and oak trees across town. The City of Presidio Water and Sewer Department helped out too by installing irrigation systems for trees in public spaces. Presidians who opted to have a tree delivered to their home were left with an informational pamphlet on caring for their new plants, which would be battling the odds in a harsh desert climate. 

Last November’s planting frenzy was a sort of test run — the kids advertised the trees on Instagram and Facebook, and kept the sign-up list relatively short. This year, Project Homeleaf found an ally in the form of Rosalinda Peña, center director for the Presidio branch of the Big Bend Community Action Committee (BBCAC), who helped a whopping 60 community members sign up for new trees. 

Peña’s job duties entail helping connect the city’s neediest with services — she helps folks sign up for food stamps and other government benefits and offers guidance any way she can to the city’s elderly and disabled residents and families with small children. “We just do what we can to help our community,” she explained.

When approached about the project, Peña had an idea: what about asking her clients if they wanted to sign up for trees when they came into the office? Some were skeptical, especially those who often had to travel out of town for medical care or were mostly housebound. 

Others were excited, especially when they were told Project Homeleaf would handle the delivery and planting. “I’m glad the program is there — I love trees,” Peña said. 

This year, the shipment of sycamores to Presidio will be replaced with Chinquapin oaks — some of the program’s sycamores didn’t survive the summer. Ramon Rodriguez, the founder of Project Homeleaf, is currently staging the trees waiting to be planted in his yard. 

Project Homeleaf’s planting days are scheduled for next weekend, and so far the volunteer turnout is looking promising — high school students who attend will earn community service hours that will help them on college applications. 

Rodriguez felt that the tree equity program fit right in with the organization’s core values. Not only will the trees beautify the city and provide shade — a luxury in the sun-scorched border town — the tree cover, over time, could help the city weather the effects of climate change. “Science backs it up — tree equity is the way to go,” Rodriguez said.