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Detroit Reforesters Transform Unused Lots Into Havens For Native Wildlife

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Detroit Reforesters are hard at work planting during their action day on April 15. The group's mission is transform vacant lots into vibrant forest ecosystems.
Detroit Reforesters are hard at work planting during their action day on April 15. The group's mission is transform vacant lots into vibrant forest ecosystems.

Some people look at an old lot filled with tires and junk and see tires and junk. Others, however, see a forest.

The Detroit Reforesters, a group of young adults dedicated to reinvigorating the Motor City with indigenous trees and plants, definitely belong to the latter category.

"We're turning vacant lots used for dumping into useful, functioning ecosystems," said Jordan Sinclair, president and treasurer of the group, which held its first tree-planting last fall and sponsored two more this spring.

Their work involves planting a wide variety of vegetation, from groundcover such as wintergreen and native ferns, to trees like oak, sassafras and flowering dogwood. Unlike The Greening of Detroit, a more established organization known for planting trees along streets, the Reforesters focus exclusively on bringing back native plants.

"If we can create enough patches, we can repopulate [the city] with native birds and insects," Sinclair explained.

Because many native animals have very specific diets, they find new homes when vegetation is displaced by hardier human-introduced plants.

The Reforesters are working to reverse this trend in Detroit one lot at a time. Their ultimate goal is to reintroduce forest habitats to Detroit, revitalizing the city's ecological web.

"It's not necessary that the lands are continuous," Sinclair explained. "You can have many little patches as long as they're situated in a such a fashion [that they] can function as a smaller ecosystem."

Appropriately, the Reforesters' organization is a grassroots undertaking. The core of the group is seven Wayne State University ecology students, who share a passion for the natural world. They also receive help from a large pool of volunteers, many of them regulars, who help out when things get down and dirty on the group's action days.

The organization started as an idea around a bonfire two winters ago, when the initial crew was brainstorming ways to contribute to the city. As the future Reforesters began to research their idea, they were encouraged to find out about urban forestry efforts in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago.

The project didn't really germinate, however, until November, when members cleaned up a lot in the Woodbridge neighborhood and planted it with shrubs.

They have since organized two additional planting days near Occupy Detroit's activist space at 5900 Michigan Ave. They are currently waiting to hear from the owner of another parcel of land so they can begin planting at a third location. (The Reforesters make sure to OK plantings with property owners, so that the city won't simply clear away their work.)

The group also sponsors "potting parties" to ensure plants can survive the trip from the nursery to their future homes. Many of the plants the Reforesters use come from specialty nurseries and tend to be rather small, which can make transplanting risky.

So far, the Reforesters have raised enough money through benefit concerts to meet their needs, but they recently received 501(c)(3) nonprofit status and plan to step up fundraising with a video on the crowdsourcing website indiegogo. The group hopes to raise enough money to purchase some city land so they can grow trees in an environment that will raise their likelihood for survival.

Although the group's concerns are primarily ecological, the Reforesters are not shy about touting the human benefits of urban forestry -- improved air and water quality, increased land value and job creation -- a perspective that may help them as they solicit grants and donations.

They can also bank on the project's appeal to people's sense of enjoyment and curiosity.

Julia Sosin, 21, an undergraduate student at Wayne State University, recently started working with the Reforesters. "It's a fun time. A bunch of people will come out and start planting," she said of the group's planting day. "It's easygoing and everyone's enthusiastic."

Sosin, who has a background in Detroit's urban garden movement, said she was attracted to the Reforesters because of their focus on native plants and the beauty of their mission: "Plant them, give them some love and affection and hopefully they'll take over and do their thing."

For more information visit the Detroit Reforesters website and Facebook page.

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