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Working with Nature: Planting Trees on the Jordan River

Volunteers planting trees along the Jordan River

Just over two years ago, the Jordan River Commission received a generous contribution from an individual in Sandy, Utah, who donated $10,000 to plant trees along the Jordan River.

By Soren Simonsen, Executive Director, Jordan River Commission

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

~ Chinese proverb 

“A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”

~ Greek proverb

teams planting trees along Utah's Jordan river

The Jordan River Commission is experimenting with the “tall pot” planting method, which plants trees grown in narrow containers with 30” deep roots.

I’ve been thinking about these two proverbs a lot lately. During this time of so much disturbance in our lives and disruption to our livelihoods, I’ve been meditating on things that provide me with a sense of stability. Perhaps not surprisingly, trees are a visual that often comes to my mind. Picturing myself walking along a wooded trail or forest path surrounded by towering, shady giants help ease my tension and calm my soul.

It seems I’m not alone in finding refuge among the trees. I’ve noticed that during this global health crisis, our outdoor trails, parks and open spaces are seeing more foot traffic than usual. Many people find being outside walking, biking, rolling and strolling in nature, even in relative isolation, is really good for their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health.

This week, we celebrate two important commemorative events recognizing our connection with nature. The first is the 50th Anniversary Earth Day on Wednesday, April 22. The second is the 148th annual national Arbor Day on Friday, April 24. These will be unusual celebrations this year, since we’re not able to gather together. But while life is crazy and we’re carefully distancing from those outside our immediate households, I hope we can all find ways to get out into nature, and where we have the means, to plant trees.

While we’re on the subject of trees, I want to share some important work happening along the Jordan River Parkway.

There are many lovely stands of trees along the river, some of them quite old. One of the challenges of our river is the heavy channelizing over the past century to prevent occasional flooding, which has resulted in the loss of many natural river functions. Among these is the natural reproduction of trees. Annual cycles that would typically raise the river during spring snowmelt, disperse and implant seeds, and saturate the ground for new growth no longer happen routinely. The result is that some of our old-growth groves along the river are not being naturally replenished.

The Blueprint Jordan River provides a collective vision to conserve river health, restore or replicate natural river functions, revitalize and enhance natural habitat, and improve the rich biodiversity of the river corridor.

Just over two years ago, the Jordan River Commission received a generous contribution from an individual in Sandy, Utah, who donated $10,000 to plant trees along the Jordan River. With our nonprofit partner, the Jordan River Foundation, we secured a matching grant from the Dominion Energy Foundation, along with in-kind support from Ivory Homes, and several smaller individual and business donations. Between November 2018 and November 2019, working with over 1,000 volunteers, we planted more than 4,000 trees and large shrubs across the Jordan River Parkway.

We’re experimenting with the “tall pot” planting method, where our partners at High Mountain Nursery propagated trees in narrow containers with 30” deep roots. The trees look a little spindly at first, and digging deep holes in the gravely soil has been challenging. But the strong, deep root systems are allowing these trees to quickly establish and grow, tapping into the natural groundwater aquifers while avoiding the expense and maintenance of supplemental irrigation systems.

This method is already proving to be highly successful to their establishment, with over 75% of our “tall pot” trees surviving the first growing season compared to about 25% to 30% survival of “off the shelf” potted plants. We’ll continue to monitor the trees this second year of establishment, and anticipate most of those that survived the first year will thrive going forward. Many of the trees we lost the first year were not due to soil and water conditions, but from eager beavers that were able to get around our protective fencing and gnaw off the tender saplings.

Over the past month, High Mountain Nursery has started propagating another 1,000 trees — cottonwoods, willows and box elders — that should be ready to plant this coming fall through next spring.

If you’re interested in getting involved with our tree planting or other initiatives, please reach out to our Commission staff volunteer coordinator, Aimee Horman, at ahorman@utah.gov, and she can get you plugged in with volunteer opportunities. Or if you’d like to donate to our “tall pot” tree planting project, we welcome contributions, large or small, through JordanRiverFriends.org.

Be safe. Stay well. Plant and enjoy the trees

Soren SimonsenI am the Executive Director of the Jordan River Commission. Over the past three decades, including 17 years of public service as an appointed and elected official, I have focused on community and economic development, and the future of resilient cities.