Champion Of Trees

Conservancy Volunteer Charles E. Conklin Spreads The Word On Planting

April 26, 2009|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

Charles E. "Charlie" Conklin has had a hand in planting thousands upon thousands of trees. But for a few minutes on a sunny Saturday morning, the most significant tree of them all was a skinny bur oak "tubling" he pressed into a treeless field near Loch Raven Reservoir.

"A tree is the most valuable thing we can do environmentally," said Conklin, a 72-year-old volunteer with the Gunpowder Valley Conservancy, as about a dozen volunteers gathered around to hear his planting tips.

Many volunteers who showed up with shovels and gloves at Saturday's tree planting had never before planted a tree.

Conklin has planted more than he can remember. It started in his early days of volunteering for the conservancy, when he took part in a 1992 tree planting in Gunpowder Falls State Park. Since then, the Glen Arm resident has helped oversee efforts to plant 16,000 trees over 80 acres of Gunpowder watershed.

He was recognized for that work by Baltimore County officials Saturday before the tree planting, which was organized by the conservancy and the county's Department of Aging to restore forest buffers. And next month, Conklin will be among 24 national recipients of a 2009 MetLife Foundation Older Volunteers Enrich America Award, which honors contributions of older volunteers.

"He's one of those unsung heroes," said Arnold Eppel, director of the Department of Aging, who nominated Conklin for the MetLife award.

"He's the rock - the one with all the connections," said Peggy Perry, program director for the conservancy on which Conklin serves as a board member.

Conklin, a grandfather who retired from a 36-year career with Bethlehem Steel in 1995 and has studied environmental science at the Johns Hopkins University, says he never set out to plant so many trees.

Rather, he says, as a volunteer with the conservancy and the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, he wanted to take action to clean up water and air and found tree planting a logical solution. The tree plantings multiplied, he says, as he passed on his passion for the environment to scores of others. Tree planting volunteers have come from schools, churches, senior centers and Scout groups. With the kids, especially, he said he hopes he has helped instill a "respect for God's creation."

Planting trees is much more about quality than quantity, he told the volunteers he led Saturday. They were among 70 or so volunteers planting 200 silver maples, redbuds, bur oaks and red oaks on an acre in a clearing off Dulaney Valley Road.

"If you plant 20 trees and they all die, forget it," said Conklin, kneeling before the "tubling," which unlike a seedling includes a root cluster with dirt. "But if you plant two trees and they survive, you've done your job."

The trees, he told them, help prevent erosion and take up pollutants such as nitrogen and phosphorus that otherwise end up in the Chesapeake Bay. Conklin then offered step-by-step tips on planting: how to place the tree at just the right level in the soil, remove the rocks, protect the roots, place a cylinder-shaped shelter over the trunk and stake it firmly into the ground.

As they dug a spot for their fourth tree, friends Darsita Patel and Heer Rami, both 15, couldn't help but be awed by Conklin's involvement in thousands of tree plantings.

"That is the coolest thing in the world," said Darsita.

"It's inspirational," said Heer.

Heer had found out about the event while looking for volunteer opportunities on the Internet. Her father, her brother and Darsita's sister came out, too. Heer's father, Umesh Rami, said the event offered valuable lessons, and hoped his children and their friends would return to see the trees' progress.

"This brings friends closer," he said. "And it gives peace of mind that you did something good for your community."

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