We've heard a lot about trees lately: The devastating deforestation around the world, caused by wildfires and unchecked development. The health benefits of "bathing" under the forest canopy, shinrin-yoku-style. The recent study that suggested we can fight climate change by planting a trillion trees - and the viral response it received, including volunteers in India and Ethiopia putting millions of saplings into the soil in a day.
I'll go out on a limb and say it: Trees are trending. And travelers should pay particular attention for a couple of reasons.
First, we all need trees. Not only are they "the best technology we have for sequestering carbon," as Diana Chaplin, canopy director of One Tree Planted, puts it, but they also provide erosion control and shade, deliver oxygen into the atmosphere, protect waterways, and shelter animals.
And second, air travel releases excessive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. The increasing number of travelers - there were a record-breaking 1.4 billion international arrivals in 2018, according to the World Tourism Organization - are worsening the very crisis we are relying on trees to help us mitigate.
Sure, you can buy carbon offsets - investments in projects that reduce greenhouse gases - to counter the carbon emissions created by travel; the Gold Standard is an independent, internationally recognised, reliable resource for finding such investments. While offsets may help cancel out carbon generated by your trip, they won't erase emissions already in the atmosphere; that carbon is still up there, as Bruce Hamilton, Sierra Club's senior director of program policy and internal governance, points out. "You've got to do more than that," he says, urging travelers to find ways to reduce their carbon footprint and to contribute to projects and organizations that are working toward solutions.
In addition to offsetting travel emissions, there are some tree-specific ways travelers can help - by participating in or supporting projects that suck carbon from the skies. Consider these options before you plan your next trip.
Volunteer on a reforestation project
Organizations such as ConservationVIP make it possible to put tree planting on your itinerary. Volunteers on their Scottish Highlands trip spend a week helping to re-wild the ancient Caledonian Forest. "The Highlands of Scotland, although a very popular destination for many travelers, is in deep trouble ecologically," Doug Gilbert, operations manager of the Trees for Life Dundreggan Estate, writes via email. "Woodland loss has been occurring since the late Bronze Age, and we now have about 4% cover of native woodland in Scotland - one of the lowest percentages in Europe."
If you're training for a trek up Kilimanjaro with the Explorer's Passage, you'll also have the chance to positively contribute to an area impacted by large-scale deforestation. In partnership with ClimateForce and Jane Goodall's Roots & Shoots, participants pause at the base of Kilimanjaro to tuck saplings into the soil before setting out for the summit.
Or if a sunny destination is more your speed, consider lending a hand in tropical areas devastated by natural disasters. After hurricanes Irma and Maria tore through the British Virgin Islands, the territory launched the Seeds of Love initiative with the help of some seed funding from St. Vincent and the Grenadines - in the form of 3,000 fruit trees to get them started. Seeds of Love arranges tree-planting experiences on request and also hosts weekly events. Volunteers can assist locals with planting native species to help re-wild the islands, protect against erosion and better equip the islands for future disasters.
OnPurpose Global also offers opportunities to work side by side with locals to rehabilitate areas destroyed by disasters and deforestation. In partnership with Spiritu Nativo, its upcoming project will lead travelers into the Sierra Nevada of Colombia to plant trees with the Arhuaco tribe, whose lands were recently affected by fires and deforestation.
Patronise businesses that are planting trees
You can help preserve and plant trees through your travels even without digging into the dirt by booking with hotels and tour operators that are actively engaged in conservation projects.
Volcanoes Safaris maintains a buffer zone along the Kyambura Gorge in Uganda - one of the most significant areas in Africa for avian, primate and wildlife biodiversity - to protect the ecosystem from encroaching development. Since the project launched in February, local volunteers and Volcanoes Safaris staff and guests have planted more than 3,000 indigenous trees. Visitors can take guided walking tours through this precious ecosystem and spot chimpanzees and other endemic wildlife.
Cottar's 1920s Safari Camp in Kenya also has #treegoals, aiming to plant 30,000 trees in 2019. And it's enlisting the help of guests in a unique way. On arrival, visitors receive "seed balls" - a packet of around 225 indigenous tree seeds that are vital to the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem. While out on driving or walking safaris, guests simply drop seed balls along the way. When the time is right for germination, the encasement automatically dissolves, leaving new tree life to take root.
And if you thought casually tossing seed balls on the ground was the most effortless way to get involved, Soul Community Planet hotels (SCP) make it even easier. With the company's recently launched "One Tree: One Forest" initiative, guests can help plant trees without lifting a finger. For every stay booked at one of its properties, SCP will plant a tree through One Tree Planted. "The Earth loses roughly 18.7 million acres of forests per year, which is equal to 27 soccer fields every minute, and this is according to the World Wildlife Fund," SCP co-founder and CEO Ken Cruse says. "While we're not going to solve the deforestation issue alone, we're committed to building awareness and leading an effort to help address this issue, even in a small way. Through our One Tree: One Forest program, we provide a small but tangible response to the issue every time a guest checks in to one of our hotels. Over time, we hope this program will make a meaningful difference through both the direct efforts of One Tree Planted and by informing and inspiring others to step up and take action."
Eco-conscious travel companies such as Amazonas Explorer, Uncovr Travel, World Expeditions and Odysseys Unlimited also include tree planting as part of trip packages - but guests don't do the planting. Amazonas Explorer partners with organizations in Peru to plant approximately four trees per person per day for each booking; more than 1 million trees have been planted to date. For every person who books a tour with Uncovr Travel, the company plants five trees and donates to organizations that clean up oceans. World Expeditions offsets the carbon footprint created by all its travel programs, and two of the projects it contributes to involve reforestation: replanting native vegetation in Australia and forest conservation in Zimbabwe.
George Omuya, tour director of Odysseys Unlimited, has taken the task of tree planting upon himself: For every guest who travels with him on Odysseys Classic Safari: Kenya and Tanzania, he plants a tree on his farm in Kenya. "Since 2013, I have planted roughly 5,000 trees and counting," Omuya writes via email. "Besides planting a tree for each guest who travels with me, we also plant [the number of trees equal to] our ages each year as a family."
Even if you aren't traveling
One Tree Planted provides a user-friendly carbon calculator that determines an approximate number of trees each person should plant per month to offset their carbon footprint, based on a few simple travel and lifestyle questions. Then you can choose the region the trees will be planted. Consider donating to reforestation and environmental projects in areas where you go hiking or camping "as a way to say thank you for allowing you to have these memorable experiences," Chaplin says.
Of course, if you can't join a tree-planting project, you can still be more green when you travel in other ways, such as carrying your own reusable water bottle, utensils, coffee cup and toiletries instead of trailing trashed single-use plastics in your wake. "Climate change, deforestation and all of these issues are so big and there are so many interconnected challenges," Chaplin says. "Likewise, there are many interconnected solutions."