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Student Spearheads Reforestation Project

When asked to create a project that benefited the environment, the campus or the community, Nate Austin ’23 envisioned one that would encompass all three.

In the spring of 2022, he proposed a reforestation of the Mercersburg campus, a project that is coming to fruition through the planting of 555 trees.

The tree planting brought together more than 100 volunteers, including faculty, staff, students, parents, and employee spouses, on May 7. 

“I cannot wait to come back in a decade or two to see how much the trees have grown and how much our campus has changed since they were planted,” said Austin, a Mercersburg, PA, resident. “I am also incredibly hopeful for the future because of those who will continue with the work that I have started, and I can't wait to see what comes of it.”

Prompted by an assignment in Will Willis’ Advanced Studies Environmental Science class last year, Austin proposed the planting to Mercersburg’s facilities and buildings and grounds managers as his Springboard senior capstone project. 

“With there being such a focus on being environmentally conscious as a campus, it is hard to completely offset our carbon footprint, and what better way to do that than by expanding our campus green space?” noted Austin, who plans to attend the University of Colorado Boulder this fall, majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology. 

The reforestation involves more than 15 types of trees, including birch, dogwood, maple, oak, willow and several types of fruit trees–peach, persimmon, plum and pawpaw. The trees came from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Arbor Day Foundation, and a few from Boyer Nurseries and Orchards Inc. in Biglerville, PA.

“For any sort of habitat, you want a variety of native trees because that’s what’s best for the greatest variety of species to utilize as well as helpful in mitigating against future problems,” said Willis, director of environmental initiatives and a member of the science faculty. 

The trees were planted near the front gate of campus.

“The site is currently being used as nothing but an empty field to be mowed, which in the long term will save buildings and grounds some work,” Austin said. “I also think that being able to watch a forest grow as our community grows and changes will be important.”

Willis has been instrumental in cultivating the connections needed for the project. 

Director of Facilities Brian Nordyke and Grounds Maintenance Supervisor Kerry Weaver have been asking Austin some hard questions, but mostly are trying to stay out of his way so he can do such a cool project, Willis said. “It’s Nate’s project. We’re just trying to stay supportive.”

The facilities department advised on climate-zone appropriate tree species, reviewed the proposed planting areas, and provided support with tools and watering equipment, Nordyke said.

Weaver showed Austin how to plant the seedlings/saplings so Austin could direct volunteers on the planting day.

Austin has limited experience with planting, so Weaver’s assistance was invaluable.

“When I was little, I helped my grandma in her garden on occasion, and I have a few plants in my house,” Austin said, when asked about his prior experience. “I also have had a lifelong love for the outdoors and thus a natural curiosity for plants and other wildlife. With this being the extent of my background prior to this project, I have learned a lot in the past two years!”

In addition to gaining knowledge about trees and forestry-related science, such as assessing soil, tree species, plant and wildlife relationships, and how they all work together (or not), Austin said he is learning project management skills. 

“I have gained so much experience networking with people and professionally communicating, critical decision-making for planning and organizing events, and how to make efficient progress when limited time is a variable,” said Austin, who noted that the reforestation changed to a personal project when he decided to pursue a separate Springboard.

Steven Stiansen, former grounds maintenance supervisor, was a major help in the early stages of the project, Austin said. 

Emily Jiang ’24, a member of the Mercersburg Green team, has helped by encouraging members of the community to support the planting, and has pushed for the fruit trees to be planted among the shade trees. 

Pictured: From left, English Department Head Michele Poacelli P’24 ‘26, Nate Austin '23, Anne Sehon '25, and Nathaniel Gotera '24 participate in the tree planting project.