College of EMS offsets carbon emissions one tree at a time

Francisco Tutella
May 11, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — With a sled full of wooden stakes, green tree shelters and saplings in tow, Tim White made his way across acres of mud and grass and at times ankle-deep water to a three-person team planting saplings along a trench. The group was one of several from Penn State that spent a Saturday in April planting nearly 500 shrubs and trees across White’s 15-acre property in Centre Hall, Pennsylvania.

“What we’re doing here is getting plants in the ground as part of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s goal of planting 10 million trees in Pennsylvania by the end of 2025,” said White, research professor in Penn State’s Earth and Environmental Systems Institute and head of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences (EMS) Sustainability Council. “When I first heard about the foundation’s Keystone 10 Million Trees Partnership, I reached out to the director of the program and said, ‘We have 24 campuses and 100,000 students. If we get 1% of them planting trees one day a year, we can help you put a serious dent in the 10 million trees you want to put in the ground.’”

Talks of getting the entire Penn State community involved in the partnership began in 2019, but the COVID-19 pandemic made it too challenging to organize tree planting events across the University Park and Penn State campuses. White discussed the issue with Art Gover, Penn State Extension specialist, and Lysle Sherwin, former director of the Penn State Center for Watershed Stewardship. They decided to host a planting on his property as a test run to gauge interest in the project and as a momentum builder for what they hope to accomplish in the future. They invited members of the EMS Sustainability Council community to participate and ensured that everyone followed masking and social distancing guidelines.

The property sits in the Sinking Creek floodplain and is home to wood turtles, deer, bears, turkeys and other wild animals. The previous owners had heavily farmed part of the land and discarded items on other areas of the property. White has been trying to return the land to a functional state by cleaning up the property and replacing invasive species with plants native to central Pennsylvania.

“This is a fascinating wetland property, and it’s under a lot of pressure from exotic species like reed canary grass,” said Gover, who lives nearby and brought his son and daughter along to help. “As an extension specialist, I deal with invasive species management and vegetation management issues predominantly in non-crop or natural area settings like this. I was pleased to have the opportunity to come and try to help reestablish some native vegetation.”

A young woman plants saplings in a field near a trench

Elinor Gover, an eighth grade student at Penns Valley Jr./Sr. High School who attended the planting with her father, Penn State Extension specialist Art Gover, and brother, Adrian, secures green tree shelters around saplings.

IMAGE: Francisco Tutella / Penn State

White and his fellow organizers saw the event as an opportunity to help the College of EMS offset its carbon emissions.

A carbon footprint inventory found that in the 2018-19 fiscal year, the college was responsible for emitting approximately 11,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide. Eighty-five percent of those emissions were due to purchased electricity and steam, according to White.

“We can’t control the 85%,” he said. “What we can control is the remaining 1,500 metric tons, and that’s a manageable number that we can eliminate. So hopefully, between doing things like reducing energy use in the buildings, getting people to think more carefully about how they travel, building solar arrays and taking part in events like this, we’ll be able to offset what remains and then start dealing with those 8,500 metric tons.”

The experience complemented coursework offered through the college, according to EMS students who took part in the planting.

“There’s lots of study on sustainability and climate change in the geography major, so being here and being able to help solve the problem is a cool experience,” said Chris Long, a graduating senior with dual degrees in meteorology and geography.

Kelsie Richner, a graduating senior in environmental science, agreed.

“I want to do research on how human activity is involved with climate change, so planting trees and being out in the environment is related to what I want to do in the future,” she said.

Jaeden Mayzel, a sophomore in environmental systems engineering, saw the experience as a great way to get out of the dorm and network.

“I think coming out here and meeting Tim and making connections with faculty will be great for finding mentors and further experiences like this in the future,” said Mayzel. “Plus, it’s good for the environment. In just a few hours you plant 50 or so trees and it helps a lot.”

White will work with a student intern this summer to measure the total organic carbon content of the soils where the volunteers planted the trees. He and future students will conduct similar analyses on a regular cycle to measure how much carbon the project offsets over the long term. He plans to formally donate the carbon offsets to EMS once a mechanism for doing so is established and host similar events across all of Penn State’s campuses in the future.

Last Updated May 11, 2021