Nonprofit RETREET Replenishes Trees Lost in Disasters



Disasters change everything in a community, and the rebuilding process can take years. Slowly, though, new foundations are put down. Bricks are laid. Homes are rebuilt. Property is replaced.

But the trees, many of which had been growing for decades, leave obvious gaps in the landscape. Dallas-based nonprofit RETREET aims to fill those holes by deploying volunteers after hurricanes, tornados, floods, and fires to replace trees lost during disasters.

“Anytime a disaster comes through a community and wipes everything out, all these mechanisms spring into place to replace infrastructure,” said Grady McGahan, RETREET founder. “But as far as rebuilding the community — it’s not going to be the place it was. It’s not because there are no buildings, it’s because the environment is irreparably changed.”

Volunteers, called RETREETers, often travel by bike, and participate in group rides around the towns they’re helping. The environmentally friendly aspects of bike-riding and tree-planting fit well together, as cyclists often have a vested interest in their natural surroundings.

Typically, RETREET arrives in a target area several months after a natural disaster and replants trees during a weekend-long event. The organization has currently planted more than 4,000 trees in Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, Ontario, and New York.

“When we show up six months into the recovery process and plant trees on people’s properties—it totally changes how they think and feel on the road to recovery.”-Grady McGahan

“When we show up six months into the recovery process and plant trees on people’s properties—it totally changes how they think and feel on the road to recovery,” McGahan said. “They think, ‘Maybe we’re much closer to the end of the road to recovery than we thought.’”


The replanting process is a calculated one, and RETREET does its research. Outreach is conducted, residents are consulted, and arborists inspect the planting sites.

RETREET communicates with urban foresters to ensure the trees they choose are native-adapted species ideal to the areas they’re being planted. For example, that drought-hardy trees are chosen for drought-prone places. Volunteers receive instructions in pre-planting workshops to ensure that they understand the best way to plant a tree for maximum survival.

The trees (usually in the 10–15 gallon range) not only lift victims’ spirits and help their neighborhoods feel more like home again, but urban forests are important in the mitigation of other natural disasters. Trees reduce the risk of flash flooding and erosion, and can alleviate the damage done during future storms.They also reduce anxiety, conserve energy, and increase property values.


Before founding RETREET, McGahan worked on documentaries in New York. While working on a series of shorts about conservation programs, he found himself particularly interested in the ones about trees.

In 2010, he left New York to travel the world, hoping to gain inspiration and a direction for his future. When he came home to Dallas, he still didn’t have much of a plan. But he liked planting trees, he liked riding his bike, and he knew he wanted to build a community and make a difference.

RETREET’s first event was in 2012 in Bastrop, Texas, after wildfires burned 34,356 acres and damaged 1,673 homes. McGahan invited people from all over the country to come to Bastrop and plant trees. More than 50 volunteers turned up, and more than 200 trees were planted. The locals were overcome with emotion.

“What we were doing was giving them something that will outlive everyone on the planet right now,” McGahan said. “It was this transition of people into stewards—we gave them something green and living to take care of. It was a really special moment.”


Later this year, RETREET plans to replace the trees lost during the EF-4 tornado that struck Rowlett on Dec. 26. On May 12, the nonprofit will hold a fundraiser for their upcoming efforts in Rowlett called Tree Feast, in which local chefs will craft specialty dishes using ingredients found on trees. The RETREET Rowlett plan was also a finalist in this year’s Earth Day Texas Earth Tank competition.

RETREET is currently the only organization of its kind, and primarily raises money through corporate sponsors, individual donors, grants, and fundraising. The group has replanted 2,352 total trees in the state of Texas including some in Lancaster and Cleburne.

“Of all the things lost, trees take the longest to replace,” McGahan said. “A tree is a very special living thing to give someone.”

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