Above: Trees Atlanta volunteer Lawrence Richardson takes part in a tree planting. Photos courtesy of Trees Atlanta.

Richard Sussman not only appreciates Atlanta’s nickname of ‘a city in a forest,’ he brings that catchy phrase right back home.

“I have no grass,” he said of his home in the city of Atlanta. “Our landscaping is trees and shrubs and raised beds. I have completely eliminated grass.”

Sussman had plenty of opportunities to get up-close and personal to sturdy trunks and leafy branches during a career with the U.S. Forest Service. Now retired, he’s taken that knowledge and his expertise as a University of Georgia Master Gardner and put it to good use with Trees Atlanta, the non-profit which over the last 35 years has worked tirelessly to protect Atlanta’s existing tree canopy and help grow new green space.

During April, the group plans to take part in the 50th observance of Earth Day on April 22 by doing a tree planting project and educational programs. But understandably, the group’s bigger push has historically come on Arbor Day. In addition to that, a much bigger and decade-long offensive has just launched.

Sussman is one of a strong corps of volunteers that helps with various aspects of the group founded in 1985. They perform tasks ranging from actual plantings to leading tours along the wildly popular BeltLine Trail—which Trees Atlanta has dubbed an arboretum, a botanical garden devoted to trees—to handling various data-collection and administrative tasks.

Richardson regularly leads tours along the Atlanta BeltLine, now dubbed an arboretum by Trees Atlanta.

Older adults are key to that effort, according to volunteer coordinator Susan Pierce Cunningham. She said many of the project leaders who helm various group initiatives are older volunteers. They work with staffers who are site coordinators—and Pierce Cunningham indicated that they are infinitely valuable.

“Just like in all aspects of life, they have more life experience with everything,” she said. “That means they understand more quickly what we’re trying to accomplish. Also, by that stage in life, they have a better idea of what they’re interested in, so they come to us with a passion for tree preservation. And if they’re retired, they have more time to devote.”

That raises the questions: just what has Trees Atlanta accomplished since its modest founding aimed at planting trees in downtown Atlanta? And what’s yet to come?

The short answer to both queries is-quite a lot. It’s like the old saying about mighty oaks growing from little acorns.

“Trees” has broadened to include community tree planting programs in Atlanta and a number of suburbs, the ambitious BeltLine Arboretum, ongoing tree care, a kids’ program, workshops and educational events and advocacy efforts aimed at preserving and possibly expanding Atlanta’s tree canopy. The group said the city’s tree coverage stands at around 47% and is slowly dropping.

Sussman is one of the docents who leads tours along the BeltLine, having joined the initial phase of the program back in 2012. He seems to delight in expounding on the value of the hundreds of graceful magnolias, oaks, evergreens and other species thrusting skyward along with shrubs and native grasses. He’s also quick to point out how the plantings create a transportation route for invaluable pollinators—birds, bats, insects and the like.

The longtime volunteer said the native grass plantings proved controversial in some quarters but added that “native grasses survive very well in difficult conditions. That’s different from putting in a lawn that requires pesticides and herbicides.”

Lawrence Richardson, another senior volunteer, pointed out that shade helps to moderate temperatures in the midst of high-density urban development and that trees benefit the atmosphere by absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen.

Richardson also leads BeltLine tours and speaks to community groups—and he doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty. Some of the trees planted along the BeltLine bear his touch.

The One Million Trees Initiative, led by Trees Atlanta, is a plan to save and plant 1,000,000 trees in the Atlanta metro area by 2030.

Elaborating on his path to involvement: “After moving here in 2007, I wanted to do some planting and gardening, and being from up north I really didn’t know a lot about southern soil and plants. I thought (getting involved with the group) would be a good way to learn.”

Learn he did, as he took the group’s “Treekeepers” course and then built on that knowledge. He was named Volunteer of the Year in 2014.

Co-executive director of the group Greg Levine is also bullish about the help older adults have provided. He said they helped plant about 7,000 trees last year in 70 different neighborhoods in Atlanta and nearby cities. Volunteers also aided in reforestation in some 30 green spaces, wading into such tasks as removing aggressive and invasive species such as Chinese Privet.

Sussman, for his part, does data collection on the city’s urban forests to answer such questions as, “Are trees previously identified or planted still standing and are they properly marked?”. Others serve on teams giving at least two years of follow-up care to relatively new plantings.

And “we have a senior who is helping us write and communicate our strategic plan,” said Levine.

Then there’s the advocacy piece.

Richardson is a member of the Atlanta Tree Conservation Commission, whose website outlines a role in assisting in “the protection, maintenance and regeneration of the trees and other forest resources of Atlanta.” The group also oversees educational and other programs and hears and decides appeals of administrative officials’ decisions.

With a rewrite of the city’s tree ordinance pending, he has firm ideas on what he’d like to see done, calling “disjointed” the current process for appeals from city decisions on how new and existing trees should be handled in the course of residential and commercial construction.

Trees Atlanta volunteers start planting to meet the initiative’s goal.

“By the time the city arborist gets involved on whether trees should be removed, plans often have already been approved,” he said, adding he’d like to see a more “team-focused” effort. He said he understands that the city has recently gotten the arborist division involved earlier in the process, but more work needs to be done.

Levine’s thinking lies along similar lines.

He believes regulations should reduce disturbance on residential lots; he’d like to see the allowance for disturbance maxed out to 60-65%. Levine also wants better regulations for planting trees in parking lots that includes a goal of 50% canopy coverage, as well as better protection for longer-lived native species. That protection would require creative solutions to design around existing trees.

Levine said he’s been involved for 24 years and with a degree in landscape architecture, his passion has long been for nature and forests. He lamented that “a lot of projects remove forests for not-the-most attractive buildings and designs. I want to make urban areas better working with landscape architects.”

Preservation is indeed one goal of the group’s “One Million Trees” initiative launched on Feb. 20, but it’s far from the only facet. The effort will also include trees planted on both city land and public projects and others installed by residents and businesses on private property. “Trees” plans to fold in ten non-profit groups in what’s billed as uniting diverse communities and approaches in a fight against climate change as well as environmental stresses stemming from urban growth. They aim to finish the far-reaching campaign within 10 years.

Older adults helping with the group said that above and beyond such lofty goals, getting involved is just plain fun.

“You meet a lot of great people from all walks of life,” said Richardson. “There’s a common purpose, exercise and fresh air. You learn a lot about the city and the people and neighborhoods.”

Volunteer coordinator Susan Pierce Cunningham said that anyone who wants to volunteer can take advantage of opportunities ranging from outdoor, hands-on work to administrative tasks. She can be reached at susan@treesatlanta.org.

Mark Woolsey

Mark Woolsey is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.