A group of volunteers gathered at Acadiana Park Nature Station in Lafayette on Saturday to plant what it described as a “food forest” of fruit trees in honor of Louisiana’s annual Arbor Day.

Held the third Saturday of every January, the state’s Arbor Day is a time when volunteers with TreesAcadiana seek to increase community awareness of the need to keep the local tree population thriving.

It’s a day for planting trees and donating trees and seedlings to local schools.

Sarah Schoeffler, past president and a founding member of TreesAcadiana, said it is crucial to plant trees because they prevent flooding, provide clean air and offer shelter to indigenous animals.

“(Acadiana Park) is the north side’s beautiful park, and it’s been here forever and ever,” Schoeffler said. “Children do a lot of sports out here, and we thought kids would love to just pick a satsuma off of a tree. Maybe that would even encourage students to go out and plant a tree in their own backyard. It’s a habitat, a sanctuary, and trees are just beautiful. What would this world be like if we had to go to a museum to see what a tree looked like?”

Schoeffler said the nonprofit organization was founded by Pierce Meleton in 1997 under the name The Tree Society but evolved after seeing infrastructure development threaten the tree population in the area and eventually was given its new name — TreesAcadiana.

She said the “freelance cutting down of trees” came with development.

“We decided we needed to make a statement on that and see where we could go to protect trees,” Schoeffler said. “That’s what our whole thing is, to plant and restore and preserve trees. We currently have a working group of about 12, and we’ve got a membership of about 200 people.”

Dennis Sullivan, the president of TreesAcadiana, said many trees in Acadiana are being removed by developers who may not have known the importance of keeping them alive.

“They are all the people’s trees because they are on public land, so if you don’t have someone to stand up and talk for a tree, the tree will get cut down,” he said. “I think anything you grow yourself, or have a hand in growing, gives you a sense of ownership. While a tree is fairly self-sufficient and doesn’t need a lot of personal attention, there is no question that trees can be sacrificed to people who aren’t on the same page with you.”

Sullivan first became involved with the organization in 1998, after he and his family participated in an event at the Cajundome planting trees in the parking lot and surrounding area.

“My wife and I came out with our kids, and we dug holes and planted trees just like we’re doing today,” Sullivan said. “It was magic.”

He said he still drives past those trees 10 years later and has gotten the chance to see the 5-foot saplings blossom into shade-giving 30-foot trees.

“I remember being a little kid planting trees with my parents and looking at large trees and imagining how long they’ve been there and wondering what types of forests used to cover our country when we were young or before we even existed,” he said. “I knew it was important to pass that on to our kids.”

Residents who want to get involved with the TreesAcadiana food forest project are encouraged to visit treesacadia.org or look for the organization at local festivals and community events.

People also can visit the Bayou Vermilion District to pick out a free tree from a variety of species to plant in their backyards.

“Plant trees,” encouraged Schoeffler. “Especially, plant a lot of your native trees because it does well here; it takes the drought here, it takes the heat here and it produces the insects and things that the birds need.”