From the ground up: TREE making a difference in Cowichan

Danya Hillyard gives directions to volunteers at TREE’s 2019 community tree planting event at David Slade’s property at the end of September. (Sarah Simpson/Citizen)
David Slade takes a moment to explain the steps involved in planting trees. (Sarah Simpson/Citizen)
Arthur Hayes, 7, digs in to prepare a hole for one of 300 trees planted in TREEs 2019 tree planting event, this year at David Slade’s property. (Sarah Simpson/Citizen)
Madeline Smith, 10 and Danya Hillyard show off a bucket of baby trees ready to move to their new homes. (Sarah Simpson/Citizen)
Danya Hillyard and David Slade check in with each other at the 2019 community tree planting event at Slade’s property at the end of September. (Sarah Simpson/Citizen)
Many hands make light work. Nina,7, and Sheri Glenwright work together to dig. (Sarah Simpson/Citizen)
Zoë Hillyard waters newly planted sapplings. (Sarah Simpson/Citizen)
From the ground up. Some 300 trees were planted in September at David Slade’s Cobble Hill property. (Sarah Simpson/Citizen)
Loads of soil and trees were donated by green businesses and volunteers donned their work gloves to make the TREE annual planting day a success. (Sarah Simpson/Citizen)

It was a warm September day and after digging the first few holes, it was time to peel off the coats and sweatshirts and really get down to work. Three hundred trees were not going to plant themselves on the former sheep pasture that now belongs to David Slade.

Armed with shovels, enthusiasm, and, most importantly, the donated saplings, 60 or so volunteers from school children to seniors, trudged through the long grass of Slade’s Cobble Hill property planting tree after tree for hour after hour — all with a smile.

TREE (The Reforestation Efforts of Everyone) was founded by Danya Hillyard’s family back in 2016. It’s their “grass roots, family-run, passion project,” she says. The planting day at Slade’s property marked TREE’s fourth annual event. All told, the non-profit group and its supporters have planted close to 1,100 trees.

Hillyard, a horticulturalist by trade, moved about the Slade property, from one group to the next, checking in, making sure everyone had the soil and mulch and water and eggshells they needed, and every so often stopping to enjoy the moment with a chat and a laugh.

Hillyard and her husband Matt started the TREE Family after having a child of their own and wanting to help address climate change before it became their daughter Zoë’s problem.

“She’s what inspired it. She’s eight now but when she was small you start to think about the future a little bit more. We had noticed dramatic changes all around us. We started to think how could we make a difference,” Hillyard explained. “He’s the ‘big ideas’ guy and I’m the ‘get things done’ girl.”

After spending some time thinking about what more they could do — they already have a small organic farm — they decided to jump in with both feet.

“We don’t want to just talk, we want to get trees in the ground,” she said. “We went for it. The first year we did it on our own property. You’ve got to start somewhere. In future years we put it out on social media looking for land. This is our fourth site now and this one is really exciting because it’s a good fit. The owners are very very very environmentally motivated and this is what we imagined, turning unused pasture into a forest ecosystem.”

Slade called finding Hillyard and TREE “serendipitous”.

“I was just going to go into my forest there where I’ve got thousands of volunteer trees coming up that are too crowded and I was going to dig them up one at a time and come out and plant them around the field here,” he said. “My daughter-in-law knew this young woman, Danya, who had this organization called TREE.”

Not long thereafter, Slade got the call.

“Danya said ‘we have a group and we’re looking for a place to plant trees’. That’s how it came about. They were looking for a place to plant trees and I had the place and I wanted trees.”

Both Hillyard and Slade are concerned about climate change and wanted to do something instead of just talk about it.

Slade did note that it feels a little counter-intuitive to plant on agricultural land but he believes it’s warranted at this time in history.

“We’re kind of un-agriculturing I guess you could say,” he said. “I think right now, at least in this community at this time, I think maybe it’s more important and it’s great to get all these young people and locals engaged. It’s really encouraging the amount of interest and concern there is around it.”

There’s no sheep grazing the pasture anymore, Slade noted, so it’s better to be put to use growing trees.

“We’ve had it for 12 years,” he said. “I’ve let my neighbours graze their cows on it and we’ve had it hayed, basically the hay goes to feed local horses and cows and helps us maintain our farm status on the property but it didn’t seem to be very worthwhile and growing trees at this point seems to be more worthwhile.”

The trees planted at Slade’s property alone will go a long way in capturing carbon.

Forests in Mind, a program of the Canadian Council of Forest Ministers, suggests, “A single hectare of mature trees absorbs approximately 6.4 tonnes of CO2 per year — an amount approximately equal to the amount produced by driving a mid-sized car with an average fuel efficiency rating of 7.5 litres per 100 kilometres more than 30,000 kilometres.”

Hillyard noted that it was one of TREE’s original ideas to utilize farmland.

“The original idea was to plant under-used farm,” she said. “In the Valley there is so much underused farm and planting can regenerate the environment and biodiversity and the soil quality after being depleted. The hope is that these stay as forests. As much as we value farmland, there is a lot of it around here that’s not being used for much. We believe it could better serve us as a bio-diverse, native ecosystem. We certainly don’t want to plant all of the farms because we absolutely support local farmers. Absolutely. We need them very much.”

With the 2019 planting season behind them, the group at TREE is looking ahead with a three-pronged plan: plant trees, educate, and build a community.

The community-supported organization operates on a tight budget and relies on the support of generous donors and businesses. Their source of income is through the Peninsula Co-op purchase point rebate program. To help, simply enter code 83495 before purchasing.

“Those are our three main goals that we feel are part of making a difference in a small community and with a small movement like ours,” Hillyard said. “I think we can inspire each other and we can simply do more together. One tree at a time.”

Want to work with them? In September, TREE hosts its Annual Community TREE Plant. It’s the best time of year to plant successfully and also coincides with National Forest Week. In April, the group hosts a Mill Bay Beach and Forest Clean-Up in honour of Earth Day.

Visit or on Instagram: @tree_83495 to learn more.

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