Timberland Transforms Mongolian Desert to a Forest

138 Volunteers plant 650 trees in China’s Horqin Desert on Earth Day
Jun 4, 2019 8:00 AM ET

by Atlanta McIlwraith

On April 22, 138 Timberland employees, business partners, consumers and members of the media spent a memorable Earth Day planting and watering trees in China’s Horqin Desert.  I was privileged to pull on my yellow boots alongside these heroes, to step outside, work together, and make it better in this extremely remote area of Inner Mongolia that has a significant environmental impact on the surrounding region.  

Since 2001, Timberland has partnered with Japanese NGO Green Network to plant trees in the Horqin Desert. Once a verdant grassland, the area became a desert due to overpopulation and overgrazing. The desert has in turn led to decreased biodiversity and decreased productivity of the land. Meanwhile, spring winds drive debilitating sandstorms in the area and impact air quality as far away as Japan and South Korea. 

Timberland’s partnership with Green Network began when one employee in Japan learned about desertification, its impact on the air in his community, and the Japanese NGO that aimed to make a difference. I am inspired by the fact that Timberland’s 18-year commitment to plant trees in the Horqin Desert began with the voice and vision of one employee.  We all know that nature needs heroes and, in my mind, he is one of them.

I’ve been fortunate to take this journey to Horqin twice before: in 2006 and again in 2015.  Planting trees that change a landscape is not an overnight process and the difference I saw between those two trips was nothing short of amazing.  The trees we had planted nine years earlier were now taller than I, and grass had grown between then. I saw with my own eyes how our work was making a difference, and that difference was significant.

On this most recent trip, we planted more than 650 trees on the first day. We then watered them through a bucket brigade that is always a highlight of the experience. Not only is it fun and great photo opp, but it also physically links us as team of individuals who all want to give something back to the land.  On the second day we pruned hundreds of trees to enhance their ability to reach for the sky.  

What most struck me this time around was the scale of our impact.  We went to different parts of the desert that I hadn’t seen before. From a higher vantage point, I could now see acre upon acre of trees that were successfully growing and doing their work to clean the air, provide oxygen, and hold down the sand.  

This year, I also had the opportunity to bring my nine year old daughter with me. In her own words, it was a “life-changing experience.”  She had the rare treat to experience another culture and part of the world. She also recognized that travel is a privilege that comes with a responsibility to leave something positive behind in the places we visit, and to raise awareness of a team effort that aims to make the world a better place. The trees she planted, watered, and pruned on our two days in the desert, the trees that will endure over time and make their difference, are her legacy there as they are for all the heroes that joined the trip. 

This event was one of 35 events Timberland is hosting this spring in celebration of Earth Day (who says it’s just one day?).  I cannot think of a better way to have spent it!

About the Author

Atlanta McIlwraith is Timberland’s senior manager of community engagement and communications who plants trees off the job as well at her family’s organic cut your own Christmas tree farm in New Hampshire.