The Oak Bluffs Tree Stewards: Coming to a Park Near You

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A new homegrown initiative is connecting community members through tree planting.

The rhythmic clanging of shovels scooping heavy loads of dirt echoes through Niantic Park on a sunny October morning, as one group of volunteers begins digging their first holes.

Likewise, in two other Oak Bluffs parks — Nashawena and Wesleyan —  eager community members of all ages pull on their work gloves and hoist their spades with the goal of planting ten trees before the end of the day. They are part of the pilot phase of an initiative called the Oak Bluffs Tree Stewards — a collaboration between the Town of Oak Bluffs and a small, dedicated group of locals.

group of people getting ready to plant trees
There was a strong community turnout at the first tree planting in Oak Bluffs. – Photo by Lucs Thors

Earlier in the morning, before the work began (and after everyone had had their coffee), Peter Meleney, co-founder of the Tree Stewards, stood with the crowd of almost thirty town volunteers and thanked them from the bottom of his heart. “We really appreciate everyone coming out; we wouldn’t be able to do this without you all volunteering your time,” he said.

Peter is a longtime member of the Oak Bluffs Climate and Energy Advisory Committee and a passionate community advocate. He told Bluedot Living that he first got interested in planting trees in town parks when he read the book Saving Us, by Katharine Hayhoe. The book made him think about his role as an individual who wants to make a difference in society. “Climate change is so daunting in so many ways,” he said, “but what are some small things we each can do on the local level to push back?” 

After speaking with a number of close friends and colleagues, Peter thought about some practical approaches to getting the community involved — strategies that could be implemented right here on the Vineyard. “I really thought about what my passions were, and eventually decided that my passion is planting trees, and that’s what I want to do,” he told me. During a meeting at the Oak Bluffs library centered around the idea of collective participation to combat climate change, Peter met a key future collaborator in this venture, Kelly Joyce. 

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Going out and digging in the dirt with your neighbors, putting a bunch of new trees in the ground — that is an excellent way to bring people together and give them some hope.

Kelly Joyce, Oak Bluffs Tree Stewards co-founder

Kelly provided the background necessary to make tree planting not just an affordable and approachable step in the right direction, but also a community-building exercise. “Initially, we were talking with landscapers about prices for planting trees, and we couldn’t get that down to under two thousand dollars a tree,” Peter explained. “Last June, Kelly suggested using bare root trees [trees with no soil ball]. It was a winning idea.”

Apart from Kelly’s spirit and her interest in sustainability, she had been involved in similar planting programs in Philadelphia, as part of the Philly Tree Tenders. Kelly had plenty of practice planting bare root trees, and knew how to organize and work with a group of volunteers.

When it came time for the Tree Stewards to bring their planting proposal to the Parks Commission, Peter got in touch with Commission chair Tony Lima. The two had worked together on an earlier initiative to put commemorative benches in town parks. “That project became a bit of a problem, because the benches started deteriorating. So instead of benches, I suggested we plant trees — they would certainly last longer,” Peter said with a laugh.

man with shovel breaking ground
Peter Meleney starts the digging. – Photo by Lucas Thors

Peter added that The Tree Stewards have also been working on a program where a townsperson can donate a tree in memory of someone, and receive a certificate that they can frame. Eventually, Peter is hoping to offer a certificate to donors indicating which park their commemorative tree is planted in. “I would like to have a place in town hall where we list the people who have donated trees. That way, it really encourages community participation, and you are publicly recognizing the people who do this,” he explained.

According to Kelly Joyce, the Oak Bluffs Tree Stewards’ efforts to fill town parks with new trees is a story of the right people and the right circumstances coming together at the perfect time. While Peter was working with Tony and the Friends of Oak Bluffs to create a plan, Kelly had just returned from Philly, where she’d been  busy planting street trees for the community. “I ended up going to one of those meetings at the library organized by the Climate and Energy Advisory Committee, Kelly said, “and that’s where Peter and I formed this wonderful partnership — we immediately got together and started brainstorming.”  

As Kelly gathered her volunteer group and prepared to head out to her dig site, she told Bluedot that the Philly model is a powerful way to bring people together around environmental issues, and to connect them more deeply to their homes. “You get to know neighbors you didn’t even know you had, all from planting trees together,” Kelly said. “And every time you walk by those trees, you feel happy, because you helped make that happen.”

Once Kelly and Peter located a bare root tree nursery in upstate New York, they began thinking about fundraising. They reached out to various environmental advocacy networks on the Vineyard and asked for help. Community members volunteered to go around and knock on doors to ask for donations, and one retired PR executive in Oak Bluffs, McGhee Osse, offered to design and print brochures for the planting. In less than two weeks, the group raised three thousands dollars — enough for the ten trees they initially aimed to plant.

woman holding tree over head
Dana Hughes hoists the first tree of the day over her head. – Photo by Lucas Thors

Kelly said she was elated to see such a strong turnout for the tree planting event, and watching everyone work together was an empowering experience for her. “I think that, regardless of your age or background, people want to do something that is meaningful. They want to do something that will positively affect their neighborhood and their town,” Kelly said. “Going out and digging in the dirt with your neighbors, putting a bunch of new trees in the ground — that is an excellent way to bring people together and give them some hope.”

“Initially, we were talking with landscapers about prices for planting trees, and we couldn’t get that down to under two thousand dollars a tree. Last June, Kelly suggested using bare root trees. It was a winning idea.”

– Peter Meleney, Oak Bluffs Tree Stewards co-founder

For Tony Lima, replenishing the number of trees in Oak Bluffs parks had been at the forefront of his mind for a long time. Over the past five or six years, he said, a number of large trees have been lost due to old age, disease, and wind storms. All Tony and the Parks Commission needed was a band of volunteers who wanted to dedicate their energy to the cause and take the lead on fundraising. “It was a no-brainer for me when Peter came to me and described this cool community-building project where everyone gets a chance to help out,” Tony said. “It shows how things can work in a small community when resources are limited but everyone really wants to see something happen.”

community members digging in ground to plant trees
Oak Bluffs Tree Stewards plan to plant ten trees in the spring and another ten in the fall each year. – Photo by Lucas Thors

In order to collect money for the project without the Tree Stewards having to form a nonprofit or a similar fundraising vehicle, the Parks Commission decided to create a restricted fund and allocate donations specifically to tree-planting efforts, including buying the trees, procuring the necessary planting tools, and maintaining the trees over time. Tony said he was impressed with the amount of donated funds the group was able to garner in such a short timespan. 

The Tree Stewards are still seeking donations for their next round of planting in the spring, and they have applied for a Community Preservation Act grant to create a secure source of funding for the next three years. Going forward, each year the gang plans to plant ten trees in the spring and another ten in the fall. Tony said he is just as excited to watch the momentum for the initiative grow as he is to watch the newly-planted trees grow over the years. “It’s great to see these folks showing up to our Commission meetings and asking how they can help us plant trees. We really appreciate that people are invested in this,” Tony said. “And they’re even willing to come out and pick up a shovel.”

Reporter Lucas Thors jumped in to help the Oak Bluffs residents plant trees.

Those looking to volunteer, donate funds, or find out more information can email [email protected].

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Lucas Thors
Lucas Thors
Lucas Thors is an associate editor for Bluedot Living and program director for the Bluedot Institute. He lives on Martha's Vineyard with his English springer spaniel, Arlo, and enjoys writing about environmental initiatives in his community.
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