The Legend of Wally Appleseed

BARRY RASCOVAR

February 16, 1992|By BARRY RASCOVAR | BARRY RASCOVAR,Barry Rascovar is editorial page director of The Sun.

Wally Appleseed has been at it now for more than two years, preaching his "trees are good" gospel to the heathens. And he has turned many in his audience into converts.

During this brief span of time, more than 2.5 million baby trees have been planted in Maryland under his guidance, an achievement that only future generations will fully appreciate.

The best part is that Wally Appleseed has accomplished this without bankrupting the public coffers. In fact, he is a prime example of how some government programs can be run inexpensively and yet still produce tremendous results.

Tremendous is the operative word, or rather "Tree-mendous" as the program is officially known in typical Schaefer-hype. It has spent $250,000 in two years but little has been wasted on staff salaries. (The entire staff consists of Wally Appleseed and a secretary.)

This works out to 10 trees planted in Maryland for every dollar spent. As word of the program spreads, its popularity is likely to soar, and its cost-to-value ratio will look even better.

Wally Appleseed, as you may have surmised by now, is Walter S. Orlinksy, the one-time wunderkind and enfant terrible of Baltimore City politics. His years as council president were tumultuous. He feuded constantly with then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer, who finally cut off all diplomatic relations. (Melvin Steinberg, take note).

Eventually, a once-promising political career self-destructed when a bored and embittered Mr. Orlinsky took a bribe to influence the award of a city contract.

But this tale has a happy ending. Once out of jail, Mr. Orlinksy decided to seek redemption. He wanted to make a contribution to society. He wanted to clear his name.

With the assent of now-Governor Schaefer, Mr. Orlinksy was hired by an old Bolton Hill-Charles Village political ally, Natural Resources Secretary Torrey C. Brown, as Maryland's first official tree-preacher. The gamble has paid off.

Mr. Orlinksy, the inveterate city boy, is now a walking advocate for the glories of nature and tree-planting.

Want to help clean up the bay, or suck up some of the state's smog or reduce hot summer temperatures a bit? Plant a tree.

Or better yet, join the "buy a tree" program, modeled after the Jewish National Fund's trees-for-Israel campaign. For just $12, a six-inch tree will be planted in the honoree's name in the subdivision of your choice.

Civic groups can get involved, such as the Friends of Druid Hill, which already has planted 60 or 70 seedlings under a program to give parks the gift of trees. The Green Gorilla Army of volunteers, a cadre of volunteers, plants trees and takes care of them. The Greening of Dundalk buys and supervises the planting of trees in its community. Winchester Homes agreed to donate one million seedlings; Hardees gave 300,000 seedlings last year.

Highways offer an especially enticing opportunity for Wally Appleseed. Six hundred children from a private school in Annapolis held a plant-a-thon last year to place 14,000 seedlings on a tract of weeded highway land.

Highway cloverleafs can be turned into groves of trees that would be ideal to absorb some of the nearby automotive pollution and also act as sound barriers for adjoining housing developments.

But there's a catch: bureaucrats don't like trees near their roads. It makes it tough to mow the grass.

Look at what happened at Black Marsh State Park in Eastern Baltimore County. Volunteers planted 300 ash, oak and dogwood seedlings only to have the area mowed down by state maintenance workers. Lawn mowing, it turns out, is responsible for the largest number of seedling deaths in the program.

"Culturally, planting trees the natural way -- letting trees grow and eventually choking off the grass naturally as they grow taller -- is hard for us to deal with," Mr. Orlinsky admits.

Historically, most of Maryland has been shorn of its trees every 200 years or so, according to Mr. Orlinsky. Between Colonial times and the Civil War, 90 percent of the state's land was cleared. By the end of World War II, more than 40 percent of those trees has been restored through re-plantings.

But since the 1950s and the onslaught of suburban development, urban sprawl and continuing population growth, we have been losing more and more trees every year.

Wally Orlinsky's objective is to reverse that trend. He's off to a good start. "My job is to do it without any money," he said. That a bit of hyperbole, but not by much. Johnny Appleseed, who spent 50 years spreading seeds and seedlings throughout the Ohio Valley and into the Midwest, would be proud of him.

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