Volunteers plant trees for Flight 93 memorial

By Sean D. Hamill Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

When the goal is to plant 150,000 trees over 250 acres in a reforestation effort on an old strip mine, it can seem daunting for any one person to try.

“But acting together as a group, like the passengers did on Flight 93, we can accomplish a lot,” Joe Pizarchik, director of the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, told about 150 volunteers gathered Saturday morning in a field in the midst of the Flight 93 National Memorial in Stonycreek Township, Somerset County.

Wearing light green T-shirts that read “PLANT A TREE AT FLIGHT 93,” the volunteers were there to begin the arduous process of reforesting part of what used to be a strip mine and now is largely a meadow with native species like white pine, quaking aspen and American chestnut trees.

They worked on a hillside about 400 yards from where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed into the ground on Sept. 11, 2001, killing all 40 crew and passengers as they battled terrorists for control of the airplane.

The trees they planted will eventually form “our version of an eternal flame,” Mike Lester, assistant state forester for the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry, told the volunteers.

Saturday’s project served several different purposes.

First, the volunteers who will eventually plant all 150,000 trees will save the National Park Service — which manages the Flight 93 National Memorial — about $1.5 million in labor costs.

Second, the trees they plant will serve as a windbreak for one of the dominant features of the memorial — the 40 groves of trees that will form a circular walkway around the crash site and define the focal point of the 2,000-acre memorial.

Third, after the dedication of the memorial plaza at the 10th anniversary of 9/11 this past September, this weekend’s planting acts as a public kickoff for the second phase of the memorial’s construction.

“This is a pretty significant phase of work,” Paul Murdoch, the Los Angeles-based architect who won an international competition to design the memorial, said in phone interview.

This second phase will result in putting out bids later this year for construction of the portal walls — the high walls that will help trace the final seconds of the path of Flight 93 before it crashed — and also the visitor’s center, where the story of Flight 93 will be told in words, pictures and artifacts.

If all goes as expected, the dedication of the visitor’s center is expected to take place on Sept. 11, 2014.

While there have long been funding issues with the $70 million Flight 93 National Memorial — former President Bill Clinton famously said at this past September’s dedication that he was shocked and dismayed to learn that funding wasn’t completed — the National Park Foundation says funding for this next phase is in place.

“By all accounts, we’re very much on track,” said King Laughlin, vice president of the park foundation’s fundraising effort, who planted some of the trees himself on Friday and Saturday.

On Saturday, Mr. Laughlin declined to provide any update about where the fundraising effort stood because he said he expected to have a major announcement about that, possibly later this week.

Last September, Mr. Clinton said he and President George W. Bush agreed to join forces and finish raising the $10 million that was still needed then.

“We still need to raise funds” for the rest of the project, Mr. Laughlin said. “But there’s no problem now that will slow down work. We have confidence in both the public and project funding to keep things in place.”

In the meantime, work will continue. It was furious Saturday morning.

Working in teams of two — one using an orange dibble bar to carve out a hole in the rocky earth, the other to carefully place a seedling of one of 11 evergreen or hardwood native tree species into the hole — the volunteers from more than a dozen states worked for about 2 1/2 hours on Saturday, planting about 4,000 trees in all. A similar effort will be held next weekend.

Some of the volunteers had been part of reforestation efforts before. But none had taken part in such a project at a national memorial, while all of them were fully aware of the gravity of the project they were working on Saturday.

“Anytime you plant a tree, it’s special,” said Scott Bearer, a senior scientist at the Nature Conservancy who lives in Williamsport and volunteered to help supervise a team of planters Saturday. “But doing it for this memorial makes it that much more special.”

“I think the spirit of this effort is just deeper,” said Mr. Bearer, who brought 13 other family members and friends to get their hands dirty for a good cause.

His cousin, Katie Knupp, 18, a senior at Ligonier High School, said it didn’t take much convincing on Mr. Bearer’s part: “I thought it would be fun. And it’s a good way to support the families of the crash victims.”

Those families appreciated the effort.

“I stood on the hillside watching all these people, digging in the earth and helping, and I was so moved,” Deborah Borza of Annapolis, Md., mother of Deora Bodley, 20, the youngest passenger on Flight 93, said Saturday while lending her own hands to the effort. “Deora would have loved this.

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