The Capital Region’s own “Tree Man” has taken over Times Square.
In a sweeping billboard placed above a bustling subway stop, Fred Breglia and other big tree seekers are seen among a giant Moreton Bay fig tree in California. “There’s a Facebook Group for Everyone,” reads the ad, which stretches down a city block.
The expansive and lush green advertisement looks out of place in the urban setting, which has helped to draw attention to it.
“In a sea of electronic billboards, this gigantic mega tree stands out amongst them all. You can’t miss it,” Breglia said.
Breglia is the executive director of Landis Arboretum in Esperance and a contributor on WAMC’s "Vox Pop." As a longtime big tree seeker and conservationist (hence the nickname “Tree Man”), he’s spent years trying to spread the message of how important trees are to the health of the planet.
“All my life I’ve been doing things to promote that trees are the answer. I’ve done it with all sorts of different platforms,” Breglia said.
That includes events at Landis Arboretum, visual art shows featuring original environmentally fueled works and more. In the last few years though, Breglia said he felt like he was preaching to the choir, to people who were already aware of the positive impact that trees can have on the environment.
In 2016, he created a Facebook group called Big Tree Seekers to connect some big tree hunters that he knew of.
“It was very small at that point. It was just a way to communicate with a handful of people that were big tree hunters around the area. I never thought it would ever grow to what it [did] but it turned into the largest collection of big tree hunters on the planet,” Breglia said.
The group has topped 38,000 members and only seems to be growing. People post photos and details about some of the largest trees that they’ve found, whether they’re in their back yard or found while traveling. The members are from all over the world, from Australia to the United Kingdom to the United States and most are fairly active. As soon as a post goes up on the page, many members comment and react within minutes, said Breglia.
“It makes a really big world a little more tangible. Australia doesn’t feel quite as far away when you have this group,” Breglia said.
The group’s steady growth was part of the reason Facebook reached out to Breglia about a month ago, asking to do a photoshoot for a promotion tying in Facebook Groups with an environmental message. At first, he thought it might be a joke or a scam.
“When I checked into it the people that contacted me were legitimate. They were interested in doing a photoshoot with the potential to use the photo in a billboard promotion,” Breglia said.
Facebook saw the Big Tree Seekers group as the ideal way for the platform to be used, according to Breglia.
“It’s sort of a partnership in an odd way. It’s an unusual partnership between big tree seekers and Facebook,” Breglia said.
After working with a big tree hunter out in California to find a tree dramatic enough for the photo, Breglia and other group members flew out to the Golden State to pose with the tree. They weren’t told until after the shoot was wrapped up that the photo would be used in a Times Square billboard.
“We were very psyched to be able to communicate and talk to people from one of the busiest corners of the world,” Breglia said.
The billboard first went live last weekend, during a time when climate change was not only a topic seen in the media but heard on the streets as well.
There were student protests locally and internationally, from Albany to Montreal, where approximately 315,000 people gathered according to the BBC.
The protests were in part inspired by Sweedish activist Great Thunberg, who has been making headlines for her “Fridays for Future” movement.
Recently, she testified before U.S. Congress imploring representatives to listen to scientists.
The launch was also during New York City’s Climate Week, which brought together activists from around the country.
In celebration of National Public Lands Day, which honors the volunteers who improve the health of public land, Facebook also invited Breglia to come to Times Square and help with a tree planting event with the non-profit One Tree Planted.
More than 1,500 people came out to plant trees in Times Square and for some, it was their very first time potting a tree, said Matt Hill, the founder of One Tree Planted, which is focused on global reforestation.
Some participants potted trees in dedication to a loved one and just about everyone put their name with the tree. The plan is to allow people, through Facebook, to track the growth of the trees even after they’re planted in Delaware and Tioga Counties.
“When they go into the ground we can take photos and then GPS tags so we know the exact location along this watershed in upstate New York [and] somebody could look [at] on a map,” Hill said.
The tracking, including getting the information back to Facebook, is still a work in progress, according to Hill.
“But I just thought it would be a cool little feature for those people that did plant a tree that day,” Hill said.
Breglia also took a few trees home to plant at Landis Arboretum.
“We’re calling it our Times Square Collection,” Breglia said.
The event, as well as the billboard, which will be up for a few more weeks, has led to a spike in the group’s numbers, though Breglia said it also has to do with a new level of consciousness when it comes to environmental issues.
“It’s come at the right time. [The phrase] ‘build and they will come’ might not have been the case in the past because maybe it wasn’t as present in terms of media but now it certainly is. I think that environmentalism as we see it has just grown,” Breglia said.
Breglia has been interested in trees and environmental issues since he was a kid.
“The thing that got me into big trees and appreciating nature was a tree [that] at about age 5 or 6 my mom showed it to me and for some reason, that tree really made an impact on my life. I’ve walked the talk ever since then,” Breglia said.
It’s easier to drive the message home when you get people interested in really big trees, like great oaks in the Capital Region that are over 80 feet tall and 10 feet in circumference or the giant sequoias in California that reach heights higher than 200 feet.
“It has that wow-factor. I feel like a lot of people don’t have any idea just how big trees can get and when they see that they’re just blown away. The group has become not only a really fantastic platform for people to see trees but it’s extremely educational because we have the biggest collection of big tree hunters across the globe and these people are the best in the business. So if you have a question about how to measure a tree accurately you could not find a better site to be able to get educated,” Breglia said.
He also created a Facebook page called Ancient Forests & Champion Trees which more than 242,000 people follow, a number that has also grown recently.
“There’s a massive public interest in trees more than my wildest dreams would have thought,” Breglia said.
The extra exposure brought by the billboard has been quite a ride and it’s helped to spread the message of the benefits that trees can have on the environment.
“The more we learn about that the more we learn that it makes a difference. If we could get a trillion trees planted across the globe that is going to offset climate change to some degree. The more we keep planting these the more it’s going to help. The more people that [are] aware of the situation that’s unfolding in front of us the more people that are going to join in,” Breglia said, adding, “Are we going to solve it single-handedly? No. Are we a big part of the solution? Yes. We’re sort of a key player in this role.”
To check out the Facebook Group or to join, search Big Tree Seekers. For more information about Landis Arboretum visit landisarboretum.org.