Maryland nearly halfway to 5 million trees planted

02 January 2024- At the start of the new year, the 5 Million Trees Initiative is approaching a milestone, with nearly half a million trees planted.

More than 180,000 trees were planted in Maryland in 2023 as part of the initiative, bringing the total number to 471,890 trees, according to Maryland Department of the Environment data.

“It’s exciting to already be at nearly 10 percent of the state’s goal after just the first two years of the initiative,” said Maryland Department of Natural Resources Secretary Josh Kurtz. “A massive tree planting effort like this one requires coordination between tree nurseries, volunteers, and dozens of partner organizations. We believe the infrastructure and partner development is now in place to begin accelerating our planting efforts and make sure Maryland reaches its 5 million tree planting goal by 2031.”

Students from Allegany College’s Forestry Program participate in a tree planting at Dans Mountain State Park. Maryland DNR photo.

The plantings are part of a multi-agency effort by state government, community programs, and individuals. The Maryland Department of the Environment tracks and coordinates the initiative. Maryland Department of Natural Resources planting programs have accounted for 321,000 trees, or about two out of every three trees planted as part of the initiative. Community organizations, private partners, and other state agencies have also planted trees that were counted towards the overall goal.

The 5 million tree planting goal was launched after the General Assembly passed the Tree Solutions Now Act of 2021, with plantings beginning in July of that year. The act directed the planting of 5 million native trees on Maryland’s public and private land by 2031. These plantings are on top of the state’s standard levels of tree planting of about 100,000 trees annually, which are not included in the count.

The act also mandated that 500,000 trees be planted in underserved urban areas, to support equitable distribution of the benefits trees provide. As of the latest count, 36,745 trees were planted in underserved areas.

Two years into the 10-year initiative, close to 10% of the total goal has been planted, and 7% of the 500,000 tree goal for underserved areas. 

The initiative supports Maryland’s 2030 Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Act Plan, which outlines a plan for a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2031. The additional trees will expand the state’s carbon sinks – physical features that absorb more carbon than they release – allowing for greater carbon sequestration, which helps mitigate climate change.

The trees will also reduce urban heat islands and help to beautify communities. As part of the effort, DNR is targeting areas along waterways and coasts where trees act as riparian buffers, reducing pollutants that enter the water.

“The progress we’ve made toward 5 million trees is encouraging,” said J.T. Bowers, associate director of the Maryland Forest Service. “It’s taken time to set up the infrastructure for this much planting, but we’re at a good place now, and we’re looking at some big steps in the near future that will get more trees in the ground.”

Trees planted for the initiative at Rocky Gap Veterans Cemetery. Maryland DNR photo.

This year’s number was outpaced by the 260,000 trees planted in 2022, the first full year of the program, though the 2023 count might not yet reflect all the trees planted in the fall. Bowers also said the progress toward 5 million is not going to be linear. This year was an important year for setting the groundwork for future work ahead.

Staff are preparing for an intensive planting season in the spring, with about 100,000 trees scheduled to be planted in partnership with the Maryland Park Service alone, Bowers said. This year, staff have also identified hundreds of acres of parkland for new tree plantings.

DNR recently hired 13 new staff members focused on the project, including 10 outreach specialists who will work with landowners and communities across the state to build up networks to assist with tree plantings.

The Ayton State Tree Nursery, which provides a vast majority of the saplings for the initiative, is also hiring new staff to significantly increase its capacity, from 2 million to 4 million saplings annually.

“We definitely have a big spring season ahead of us,” Bowers said. “The hiring we’ve done at the end of 2023 is really encouraging. We have a lot of intelligent and committed staff who are getting the word out and developing projects with a wider range of partners than we ever could have before.”

The work can be challenging, especially because need to be monitored and cared for after planting, Bowers said. DNR staff works to maintain trees, especially for communities that don’t have resources to do so themselves. Once a tree survives for two years, it has a much greater chance of lasting into maturity.

DNR’s contribution to the initiative has depended on the hard work of programs and partners ranging from the Maryland Urban and Community Forest Committee, Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, the Western Maryland Research Conservation and Development Council, Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake, the Maryland Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education and many others.

Individuals can play a part in reaching 5 million trees by planting their own trees and plotting the planting locations online, which registers the tree for the official count toward the 5 million tree planting goal, or by participating in an incentive program. DNR offers a $25 coupon toward the purchase of a tree from participating retail nurseries and garden centers, and donations through the Gift of Trees program also contribute to the goal. 

Individuals can also reach out directly to Isaac Whitmore, DNR’s 5 Million Trees program supervisor, at issac.whitmore@maryland.gov for more information about how to have trees planted at a specific property.