Just a stone’s throw away from the biggest oak tree at Washington’s National Arboretum, a group of cyclists gathered this fall around a four-foot sapling to perform a ritual to make the young tree grow.
The riders rubbed their hands together, performed several chants, then threw their hands toward the ground where the newly planted hybrid maple sat.
“The roots, the roots, the roots are on fire,” they sang before breaking up into laughter.
Such lighthearted moments during tree dedications were common on a 500-mile fund-raising trip 65 cyclists took this fall through some of the most scenic routes in the mid-Atlantic region.
The Stihl Tour des Trees, as the cycling event is known, has raised more than $5-million in the past two decades for the Tree Research and Education Endowment Fund, in Naperville, Ill. That money accounts for almost three-quarters of the budget of the charity, which is dedicated to financing studies on the best ways to care for trees in cities and then spreading the word about the findings.
Tree lovers from across the United States and Canada volunteer for the annual trip, which since 2001 has been sponsored by Stihl, the German outdoor power-equipment maker of hedge trimmers and chainsaws. Participants must raise or provide at least $3,500 in donations to the charity to join the ride; corporate sponsors cover the costs of the ride itself.
Tour des Trees was first conceived in 1991 at the International Society of Arboriculture conference, which ran a charity that eventually merged with another group to become the TREE fund.
The next year, 13 riders set off from Seattle on a ride that ended 800 miles later in Oakland, Calif. The inaugural ride raised $89,000.
As the event has matured, it has grown into a more ambitious and more lucrative trek. The annual trips have been conducted in other regions of the country as well as in Canada and in Britain. At the event that wrapped up last month, the cyclists and sponsors raised more than $460,000.
“We’ve exceeded last year’s total goal,” says Janet Bornancin, executive director of the TREE fund.
“We’re so excited about the efforts of the riders. As we all know at this time, it’s very difficult to raise funds.”
Why Trees Are Important
Many of the participants in the bike tour are far more interested in promoting trees than shaking money from them.
“I do this because I love trees and it’s very, very important to get the word out why trees are important not just to me but to everybody,” says Thomas Ordway, a 52-year-old forester from Indianapolis who has ridden on the tour in each of the past eight years.
Meeting the requirement to raise at least $3,500 to participate is the tough part, he says.
“For me, personally, fund raising is probably the biggest challenge,” he says. “Especially in today’s economy, some people may be a little bit more hesitant to give. But there’s always a lot of people out there in the [tree-care] industry that are willing to help.”
So far, he’s raised about $3,200, with more coming in, he says.
While most riders raise money from relatives and friends, others do tree work and landscaping to garner donations or write personal checks.
Not Easy Raising Money
Because it is so challenging to raise money in this economy, the group has been taking steps to diversify its fund raising.
“As we all know, we can’t rely on events exclusively to support our organization,” says Ms. Bornancin.
The organization has long held an annual auction fund-raising event, but now it is also expanding company and regional sponsorships and seeking donations by text message.
The TREE Fund has reached out beyond the tree-culture industry to obtain other corporate sponsors, such as cyclist suppliers, a spark-plug maker, and the Ford Motor Company. Additionally, “we’ve increased the dollar amounts that we have received from some of our sponsors,” she says. Sponsors for the tour increased by 13 percent in 2011 from the previous year, with cash commitments garnering 32 percent more than last year.
This year’s tour kicked off in early October at the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center in Virginia Beach, Va. They were joined there by riders who wanted to participate for one day in a 30-mile tour called “Ride for Research” around the Virginia Beach area.
Then the riders took off, making stops at colonial Williamsburg and Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s estate.
The visit at Monticello’s Kemper Park marked a special moment for some of those who had planted an American beech when the tour rode by in 2000. They took pictures in front of it and admired how tall it had grown.
Along the way, these cyclists planted about 60 trees in Virginia and Washington. And as part of the tour’s outreach and education programs, they stopped by elementary schools to teach young kids about trees and the science of growing them.
“We’re able to impact the next generation,” Mr. Ordway says. “It’s very important to educate them.”
'Deep Passion’ for Trees
The final stop on this year’s trip was a tour of Washington: the National Mall, where the riders stopped and snapped pictures; the National Arboretum, where they planted a hybrid of the paperbark maple and sycamore maple; and American University, where the tour finished with a concert featuring Chuck Leavell, the Rolling Stones keyboardist. He’s also an award-winning tree farmer.
“This is my third Tour des Trees,” Mr. Leavell said in an interview. Raising money to conduct research on ways to keep trees healthy, he said, has “become a deep passion for me, just as music is.”
Among the 65 cyclists, about 20 riders were new to the tour, like Michael McCoy, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., consultant who specializes in providing advice on tree care. A colleague told him about the ride at a conference. “He said I won’t be sorry, and I’m not,” Mr. McCoy says, smiling under the midday sun at the National Arboretum after he helped bless the tree.
“My profession deals a lot with trees,” says Mr. McCoy, 36. The money raised from the tour has benefited tree researchers in Florida, with products and research that have aided Mr. McCoy professionally, he says. “So this is really an opportunity for me to give back.”