On July 29, 75 intrepid cyclists embarked on a seven-day, 585-mile trek through the Buckeye State. The riders are participants in the Tour des Trees, an annual biking adventure that is the primary outreach event of the Tree Research and Education Endowment Fund.

This was the fourth tour for J. Eric Smith, TREE Fund’s president and CEO, and he says it was a tough one. Three “century” days in a row, with the longest being 116 miles, plus hilly Northeastern Ohio terrain made for a challenging ride. Still, for many of the riders the challenge is part of the fun.

The Tour des Trees was founded in 1991 by a few arborists who wanted to use their passion for cycling to promote their love of trees — and create a source of funding for tree research. The first tour was a grueling 900-mile adventure, cruising the West coast from Seattle to Oakland. Some of the 13 riders that made the inaugural trip still take part in the tour 26 years later.

Ward Peterson was one of the three arborists who hatched the idea at an International Society of Arborists conference in 1991. He looks back fondly at the first tour.

“Between the route, the amazing scenery, the startup and the friendships that were formed, that first ride was my favorite,” he says. “It was an unknown frontier.”

He says the event has grown from those early days, but the principles have stayed the same.

The Tour des Trees has dual purposes: fundraising and community engagement. Each full-time rider commits to raising $3,500 for research and education programs. Tour expenses, like meals and lodging are covered by TREE Fund’s corporate partners. That way, all money raised will go to fund tree research. TREE Fund is a 501(c)3 charity devoted to sustaining the urban forest and funding research and education grants. It has funded $3.4 million in research projects since 2002 on topics as diverse as plant health, root and soil management, and tree transplanting.

Jeff Edgar, owner of Silver Creek Nurseries rode his fourth Tour des Trees in 2018. He has been involved in two research projects which were funded in part by the TREE Fund. The first dealt with shipping B&B trees — specifically, if the handling caused any damage to the trees. The other project, Edgar says was “near and dear to my heart” — whether wire baskets should be left on or removed in the planting process. He says the research funded is a great reason for nursery growers to get involved with the tour.

“Many tree health issues can be addressed in the beginning, at the nursery, such as planting depth, growing methods, initial trimming and variety selection,” Edgar says. “The trees start here. Everyone who has a stake in the tree business, should be at the table, yet it seems we operate separately most of the time. The TREE Fund grants and webinars are helping to start that conversation.”

Edgar believes the Tour is a strong catalyst for fundraising. During the Tour, riders meet with groups of state and local dignitaries for tree dedications, educational programs and book giveaways. Arriving at these sites in matching jerseys promoting their love of trees tends to boost enthusiasm for the cause. Smith agrees.

“With funds raised by the tour, TREE Fund researchers have discovered better ways to propagate, plant, and care for urban trees, making them more resilient, more resistant to pests, and less prone to failure,” Smith says. “The tour also funds programs to connect young people with the environment and foster careers in the green industries.”

Educating the public

That need for community engagement is one reason the Tour moves around the country.

“We're an organization that funds research internationally from a small office in the suburbs of Chicago,” Smith says. “And every year we take the Tour des Trees to a different part of the country. It gives us a week of literally taking our show on the road. I'm going into schools, going into municipal spaces, going into libraries, meeting people along the road to talk about the importance of tree research.”

The road show starts with the basics. The stops are hosted by local tree stewards, and may include tree plantings, book donations, and children’s environmental education programs for local youth. At major stops like Cleveland’s Public Square on Aug. 1, Smith and his fellow riders hold forth on topics like putting the right tree into the right place, understanding species selection, how certain trees thrive in different environments and climates. Or they may present findings from one of their research projects. The focus is on getting people to think about the science behind the trees in their yards, parks or public spaces.

“Everybody understands, on a very obvious basis, the benefits of having trees within the cities that we live,” Smith says. “I think sometimes people are somewhat surprised to learn how much it costs to keep them healthy and how difficult it can be to keep them healthy. Trees didn’t evolve to live in cities with us, and there’s a lot of science behind making sure that we get all the benefits that trees have to offer us when we live with them in our cities and our suburban spaces.”

One of the big events that took place on this year’s Tour was the planting of a Liberty Tree at the Columbus statehouse. Each of the early colonial capitals had a Liberty Tree, a place that was a gathering point for revolutionary patriots to share information. Many were cut down by British soldiers, as they were seen as political symbols. The last of those original Liberty Trees stood on the campus of St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. In 1999, the nearly 600-year-old, 96-foot tulip poplar was damaged by Hurricane Floyd and was felled. An organization called The Providence Forum has helped preserve and clone this tree through a bud grafting program. A tulip poplar cloned from that tree was planted and dedicated Aug. 4 in Columbus.

Pixelate Photography by Jason Miller

Not every rider makes every stop, and riders spread out according to their abilities. To make sure everyone is in the same zip code, tour support team members in vehicles help riders who stopped for an event to catch up with the main group.

“It really is like a big sort of rolling family circus,” Smith says.

Edgar stopped this year to make several tree dedications for trees he had donated to the 2018 tour. His Silver Creek Nurseries is the only grower of Johnny Appleseed Apple Trees, certified by the Johnny Appleseed Museum and Education Center in Urbana, Ohio.

“Seeing that John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed) spent many years in Ohio, and most of that time in areas where we traveled, I thought the tour would offer a golden opportunity to donate some of my trees for these dedications,” he says.

Johnny Appleseed trees were dedicated at three sites: Ariel Foundation Park in Mount Vernon, Ohio; Heritage Corridors of Bath (Akron area), Ohio; and the Selover Public Library in Chesterville, Ohio. All of these sites will soon receive an arboretum tag, which will include a QR code with links to the TREE Fund, the Johnny Appleseed Museum and Education Center, and Silver Creek Nurseries, as well as a certificate from the Johnny Appleseed Museum.

Pixelate Photography by Jason Miller

Riding into the sunset

Tour riders come from all areas of the green industry and several allied industries, as well. They ride for different reasons. Edgar started training for the tour in early 2014, when he made some lifestyle changes and worked to build up his personal fitness. His goal was to get heathy, lose weight and build up stamina for the next tour.

“The tour riders have become a second family to me,” he says. “There are so many people associated with this group who are the ‘cream of the crop’ in the green industry.”

Peterson recently retired from The Davey Tree Expert Company, but still makes the tour a priority. And Davey has done the same, pledging $250,000 in 2018 as event sponsor.

“Over time it has attracted a lot of people and it’s built a really strong fraternity,” Peterson says. “There are people out on this year’s ride that have done it 20 times.”

Pixelate Photography
by Jason Miller

“You’ve got a mixture of people that have ridden together for a long time, look forward to getting together with old friends every year and the other half are people looking for a challenge and seeing this ride and saying ‘what’s this about? What are these guys doing? Could I do that?’ For some it’s just a bucket list, but other people get pretty well hooked up in it and say ‘This is great group of people. This is a great cause. This is a great ride.’ This is something you want to keep doing.”

If either of those sounds like you, here are the details on the 2019 Tour.

TREE Fund plans to host the 2019 Tour des Trees Sept. 15-21, 2019, with a planned hub in Nashville, Tennessee. The route will take riders through Kentucky and Tennessee.

The International Society of Arboriculture’s Southern and Kentucky chapters will be jointly collaborating with TREE Fund on the 27th annual Tour des Trees event next year.

After three particularly long tours in a row, future route designs will have a target distance of about 425 miles over five full days of riding, slightly shortening the travel commitment required to participate in the event.

Love the mission and want to help, but not sure you’re ready to take on a 425-mile bike trip? Part-time and virtual tour options are also available.

Next year’s opening check-in and dinner will take place Sept. 15, 2019 with a closing dinner celebration on Sept. 20, followed by check-out and bike shipping on Saturday, Sept. 21. A full route will be announced in December 2018, and registration to ride will open in early 2019.

For more: www.treefund.org