Project looks to map saplings given to Alberta first-graders

· The Pulse

Do you remember where the tree you took home from school in first grade is planted?

For more than 60 years, the government of Alberta has distributed nearly 70,000 tree saplings to Grade 1 students during Alberta Forest Week. Now two local tree enthusiasts want your help to map those generations of lodgepole pine and white spruce.

"A lot of people can say where they planted the Grade 1 tree or know somebody who's planted a Grade 1 tree. We thought it would be interesting to map them see if we can get a list of as many of them as possible (and) any kind of stories or photographs that go along with it," said Dustin Bajer, co-creator of the Grade 1 Tree Registry.

The registry uses Google Maps and Google Forms to collect submissions, opting for tools that many people are already familiar with to make it as easy as possible to put their own tree on the map. The map launched in July, and already includes trees from Edmonton, St. Albert, Parkland County, and as far away as Victoria, B.C. Some are only one year old; the oldest so far is 66 years old.

The tree registry grew out of a shared love of documenting, mapping, and protecting local trees. Grade 8 student Joshua Kirsch, who started a project to map heritage trees in the Edmonton region, contacted the city to see how he could ensure an old tree on the west end wouldn't be disturbed by nearby LRT line construction.

"It's a huge tree, one of the largest that I know of in the city. And I was interested in trying to learn how to protect it," Kirsch said. The city forwarded Kirsch's e-mail to Bajer.

"I don't work for the city," Bajer clarified. "I just also have an interesting heritage tree. So, they were like, 'Hey, here's a kid who also likes trees as much as you do.'"

Joshua Kirsch and Dustin Bajer stand in front of trees in the Edmonton Urban Farm

Joshua Kirsch and Dustin Bajer are mapping the hundreds of thousands of spruce and lodgepole pine that have been given to students over more than 60 years as part of Alberta Forest Week. (Brett McKay)

In 2019, Bajer received a grant from the Edmonton Heritage Council for his Heritage Plants of Edmonton project, which, similar to Kirsch's work, collected photographs and documented heritage trees in the city.

Bajer noticed that for all the interesting trees between their lists and others, there was little attention given to native species like spruce and pine that dot our neighbourhoods.

"They're native, so they're not uncommon. We don't tend to look at that in the same awe as like this little tree here," Bajer said, pointing out a young Manchurian walnut growing at the Edmonton Urban Farm where the two were working. "That's unique. We would say that's interesting. We kind of overlook the native (trees). ... I feel there is an element of even colonialism there, like what we decide is cool and interesting and worth protecting and what isn't."

Kirsch's own Forest Week sapling didn't make it through its first winter. He and Bajer expect many were lost to mowing accidents, landscaping, and improper care. But even by conservative estimates, that leaves hundreds of thousands waiting to be registered in the province, like the one Bajer took home decades ago and is still growing strong on his parent's acreage.

Regardless of how many trees the project ends up collecting, Kirsch said he is happy to see an upswing in public interest in trees, "and that people are starting to realize their importance."