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Some tree advocacy groups are trying to restore the natural habitats destroyed by Hurricane Ian

People huddled around a fallen tree, using shovels to try and lift the tree back up after it fell following Hurricane Ian
Alice White
Volunteers for People for Trees standing up a fallen loquat tree at the Garden of The Five Senses

The chair for People for Trees, based out of North Port, says with many trees damaged or destroyed, people are realizing what they once had.

Apart from Hurricane Ian devastating homes and buildings, it also had a significant impact on many trees and the natural environment around areas hardest hit.

Now, some tree advocacy groups are figuring out how to rebuild the natural tree habitat there.

The organization People for Trees, based out of North Port, just celebrated its 25th anniversary in October, right after the storm whipped through the area.

Alice White is the group's chair, and also a North Port city commissioner. She says with many trees damaged or destroyed, people are realizing what they once had.

"They've conveyed to me how devastating areas look, where they took that tree canopy for granted, or they took the trees around them for granted,” White said. “Now that they're gone, they are feeling really low about that."

She says the trees along Sumter Boulevard — one of the area's main thoroughfares — suffered some of the worst tree damage.

Now, her group is working to repopulate the area with more trees.

While she said they're waiting for FEMA to fully clear out before ramping up replanting efforts, they've started standing up trees that were knocked over or leaning, but still intact.

“We have some people that really would like to do something positive,” White said.

White and a group of volunteers helped raise fallen loquat trees in the city’s Garden of the Five Senses.

People with shovels huddled around a tree that was stood back up after being blown down by Hurricane Ian
Alice White
While White said they're waiting for FEMA to fully clear out before ramping up replanting efforts, they've started standing up trees that were knocked over or leaning, but still intact.

And in January, People for Trees is hoping to double its Arbor Day tree giveaway from 100 to 200 trees for residents to plant on their properties.

The trees and foliage of the area also have a direct impact on the wildlife that call it home.

“We have a need for protecting biodiversity in general, and protecting our natural plant life and the wildlife,” said Edie Driest, chair for Northport Friends of Wildlife.

In some instances, knocking down trees could be a positive for some animal populations.

“Oddly enough, it could perhaps have helped the Florida Scrub Jay in the sense that typically, they like to have a habitat that does not have a lot of tall trees,” Driest said. "There's reasons for that. They don't like to have predators able to hide out in tall trees and attack them, so having minimal trees in their landscape is what they prefer.”

“Other species, not so much.”

Mangroves, which are known to prevent erosion and protect coastal habitats from flooding and other issues, is another type of tree that Driest wants to see heavily protected, as it directly affects the wildlife in the region.

Overall, she said she’d like to see a slow down of development, particularly for wetlands, which helps with flooding.

And she said North Port Friends of Wildlife will be checking in on the gopher tortoise population and how they fared through the storm in the spring, when its warmer.

White says the North Port's city tree fund will also help the city plant more trees as it recovers from the storm. She said she's recently been frustrated seeing people knock down trees that were still remaining after Ian, in fears a future storm will cause them to damage their properties.

"If they didn't fall over during 150 mile an hour winds, then they're really good trees and those are the last trees that you want to consider taking down,” White said. “So that's going to be part of our push, to educate people about keeping those trees.”

White also says it’s important that people are planting the right trees that will thrive in Florida’s weather conditions.

“For example, our native sweetgum tree, because of its symmetrical shape, they were less likely to blow over or even snap,” White said. “In fact, we planted those in a street tree project about 15 years ago and they're all still fine.”

As a host and reporter for WUSF, my goal is to unearth and highlight issues that wouldn’t be covered otherwise. If I truly connect with my audience as I relay to them the day’s most important stories and make them think about an issue past the point that I’ve said it in a newscast, that’s a success in my eyes.