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Harford Arbor Day tree planting includes tribute to late conservationist Jim Thomas

Volunteers planted 200 trees during Harford County's annual Arbor Day observance Friday, including one swamp white oak sapling in honor of the late local conservationist James "Jim" Thomas.

Volunteers planted 200 trees during Harford County's annual Arbor Day observance Friday, including one swamp white oak sapling in honor of the late local conservationist James "Jim" Thomas.

Mr. Thomas, the founder of the Harford County chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America and owner of the Jarrettsville Nurseries Christmas tree farm, died in January at age 96.

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His legacy of land conservation and tree planting was honored with the ceremonial planting of the swamp white oak on a 48-acre parcel owned by the Harford Land Trust off Willoughby Beach Road in Edgewood. More than 100 volunteers, including many children off from school for Good Friday, participated in the tree plantings.

"Jim was probably one of the greatest conservationists in Harford County," said Wayne Merkel, regional forester for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Merkel, a longtime friend and neighbor of Mr. Thomas, who lived in Bel Air South, said Mr. Thomas was inducted into the Izaak Walton League's hall of fame in 2010 – Merkel nominated him – and had served on the Harford County Forest Conservancy District Board, including time as chairman and vice chairman of the board.

"Jim knew that trees were a natural resource, and if planted they would grow forever," Merkel said.

Harford County Executive Barry Glassman and County Councilman Chad Shrodes were among the volunteers planting the ceremonial tree.

Shrodes also was a longtime friend of Mr. Thomas, whom he considered a mentor.

"Because of him, we have the Land Trust," Shrodes said. "We have conservation programs."

The county typically holds its Arbor Day tree planting on public properties such as parks or schools, but this year's event took place on privately-owned property under the stewardship of the Harford Land Trust.

Founded in 1991, the Harford Land Trust works to acquire ecologically significant properties for protection and preservation through purchase, donation or conservation easements throughout the county to protect and preserve it.

The Land Trust acquired the Willoughby Beach Road property in December, according to Executive Director Peg Niland. The property, a combination of farm fields and wooded areas, is along Otter Point Creek, a tributary of the Bush River, which then flows into the Chesapeake Bay.

Niland said the Land Trust owns more than 100 additional acres in the neighborhood, and the Willoughby Beach Road property is part of an ongoing effort by the organization and Aberdeen Proving Ground to acquire as much property as possible to serve as natural buffers between the Army post's Edgewood Area and the surrounding community.

The Land Trust and Army officials acquired the Arbor Day site through the Army Compatible Use Buffer program. The land is preserved in its natural state to protect wildlife, ensure the health of the Chesapeake Bay, provide green space for the community and allow soldiers to continue their training while still being good neighbors, according to state from the U.S. Army Garrison at APG.

"We're working compatibly with natural resources to make sure we have the buffer that we can continue to do the testing and training thats involved in APG and Harford County," said Frank Lands, a civilian who serves as the deputy to APG's Army garrison commander, Col. James Davis.

The post, which is Harford County's largest employer with about 22,000 civilian and military workers, received its 11th consecutive annual Tree City USA award from the Arbor Day Foundation Friday, while Harford County received its 13th annual Tree City USA award.

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Isom Brown, an Edgewood resident who lives about a mile from the site of the tree planting, said he is glad to see the land being preserved.

Brown and his 8-year-old grandson, Donovan Jackson, from Montgomery County, participated in the tree planting.

"Now that you see the trees and stuff around here people are going to say, 'This is a nice place, I want to keep it that way,'" Brown said.

Brown is a retired Army sergeant first class who was stationed at APG three times during his military career.

Friday was his first time participating in the Arbor Day tree planting and thought it would be a good experience for his grandson.

"I wanted him to get out and get his hands dirty," Brown said. "It's good for him."

A number of local Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts participated in the tree planting.

Shante Ruffin, Tiger den leader of Pack 978 in Joppa, kept her eyes on the youngest boys. She said the pack has participated for "multiple years."

"[We're] just helping them to learn to be part of the community, learning to work as a team, be part of something," she said.

Forest Hill resident Barry Judy, his wife Susan and his three children – son Edwin, 15, and daughters Olivia, 10 and Ellie, 3 – planted a tree.

Judy said he has been bringing his children to Arbor Day plantings for 10 years.

"It's a family event, and it's something for the community we like to do," he said.

Edwin was 5 when his dad started bringing him to Arbor Day. He is now a sophomore at C. Milton Wright High School near Bel Air.

"It's nice to come here and see everybody helping," he said. "It seems like every year it goes by quicker and quicker because we have more people helping."

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