The TH Interview: Penny Eastwood of Treesponsibility

People putting trees on a sloped surface in Yorkshire England.

Monty Rakusen / Getty Images

A little while back we alerted readers to a tree planting event in the West Yorkshire village of Hebden Bridge in the UK. Under the banner of Treesponsibility, a group of local residents have been responding to severe flooding by reforesting the watershed above their town. In so doing, they hope to bring about "climate change of a different kind", as they encourage people to take responsibility for their own carbon emissions. They have also played an important role in defeating plans for an open-cast mine, and they are currently opposing the expansion of aviation capacity in the area. TreeHugger recently attended one of their plantings, and took some time out to chat with Penny Eastwood (pictured), one of the key people behind the organization. In this interview, she sheds a little more light on the ambition of the group and their strategic vision for the valley.

The site for the weekend's planting is a sloped field, kindly donated by a local farmer. The plan is to get 1000 trees in the ground here. While this sounds like a lot, the group always plants a minimum of 10,000 trees in every growing season, and they are envisioning a 25 year program of planting that will transform the valley. A group of about 40 people have gathered, some local, some from further afield, and they are busy clearing turf, planting saplings and carefully mulching them while being battered by the strong West Yorkshire winds. Looking over the landscape, it is clear why tree planting is so important, as Penny explains:

"The most important thing is to think where we are in terms of the island that we live on. We are very close to the main Penine watershed. Because we live in these narrow, funnelling valleys, when we get intense storms this becomes a very dramatic area. Soil washes down, rubble washes down, and water washes off the hills."
This flooding has already caused great devastation to the local community, with the floods of 2000 alone causing damage running into millions of pounds. Penny is convinced that these are the early signs of much more dangerous climate change:
"What we're seeing now is a result of pollution in the late seventies, because of the lag effect in the climate. What people believe will happen, once the really serious climate change kicks in, is that we will see much more intense rain storms. Because we are near the top of the valley, when we do get flooding there is very little warning."

The idea behind Treesponsibility, then, is to create a landscape that is resilient to flooding and storms. Of course, planting woodland also has the added benefits of creating natural habitat, providing future timber and biofuel resources, and sequestering carbon. The group is not just about tree planting though. They are careful to follow a strategic vision for the area, and are more than aware that they can't just cover the hills with forest:

"If we could plant where we wanted, we would have trees on all the steep slopes, and probably just above. We would be doing ecological restoration of the moors to make sure that the peat isn't being washed down into the rivers. We wouldn't plant on the peaty areas. Peat is in itself a very valuable carbon sink."

Aside from ecological decisions, Treesponsibility must also deal with social and community issues in terms of land use. Many of the farms in the area have been in the same families for generations and can be extremely resistant to change. People also have economic designs on the land. Treesponsibility have had to play a role in resisting what they see as inappropriate development, while encouraging more sustainable approaches:

"We've had to fight off an open-cast mine. It went to a public enquiry, and we won this long drawn out battle. I went to see the owner afterwards, and gave him a briefing about climate change, and told him I'd be obliged to fight him if he tried it again. There's now planning application coming for a wind farm on that site. We would support this on the degraded land from previous mining, but we wouldn't support it on any peatier areas. People need to recognise the importance of peat as a vital carbon sink, and in its role of absorbing water and avoiding run off."

Meanwhile they are also busy talking with local authorities and development agencies, trying to encourage a more localised, low-carbon approach to development:

"We also try to engage with officials, to try to get them to realise that soil is important. They are putting investments into airports and link roads when really, for the good of our valley, they should be investing in this kind of restoration project."

The group is currently involved in actively opposing plans to increase air-traffic by three-fold in the region, and have put in an extensive consultation document to the public inquiry, setting out a powerful argument for a low carbon development path for the region (a PDF of the document can be downloaded here).

At first glance, involvement in politics and planning might seem outside the remit of a tree planting group. However, as we take a tour of some of the sites that the group has planted in the past, it is clear that much of their work involves repairing the damage of past mistakes. One of their bigger sites is particularly dramatic. Originally an old pipe factory and quarrying operation, the hillsides are criss-crossed with old roads and the soil is massively eroded. Nevertheless, the site is now in the early stages of emerging woodland, with tree roots protecting the landscape from further damage:

"Looking over in that direction, you can get some idea of how ravaged the land has been up here. There's been mining, landfills, quarrying. We came on this site in 2001 and we've planted 10,000 trees here — a mixture of alder, birch, rowan and a few others. In terms of tree growth, it's not our best site. It takes longer to get trees established on these steep slopes, but they are important there, so it's worth it."

Whether it's mining and industry, or aviation expansion, bad decisions have often been made for seemingly sound economic reasons at the time. This insight from the past seems to add a sense of urgency to the group's mission, a desire to come up with a carefully thought through, long-term, sustainable plan for the region's economy. If their goal is to protect their region from climate change, then Penny believes that they cannot stand by as aviation emissions grow dramatically. They have no choice but engage with the powers that be, doing anything they can to steer their community in a saner direction. Let's hope they succeed.

Before we leave, we get a chance to visit a site that this TreeHugger helped plant back in 2001. It's a surprisingly emotional experience as I see the result of a weekend's worth of work (and play) slowly but surely becoming woodland. A strange urge comes over me to hug one of these still young and tender trees, but I resist. I run off to find some fellow tree planters to hug instead. Treeplanterhugger just doesn't have the same ring though...

Many thanks to Treesponsibility.

[Interview conducted by: Sami Grover]