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Arbor day i s a nationally celebrated observance that encourages tree planting. It officially takes place in the United States on the last Friday in April, although each state may have its own Arbor Day based on the planting season. Globally, many other countries have created their own Arbor Day based on the U.S. model. The day began in 1872 when journalist J. Sterling Morton, the editor of Nebraska’s first newspaper, proclaimed the holiday in Nebraska. It has been widely cited that one million trees were planted on the first Arbor Day, in part due to prizes offered to individuals and counties for planting the most trees.
Tree planting in the United States was not new in 1872. Euro-Americans planted trees for windbreaks and ceremonial purposes for the previous four centuries. In addition, tree-planters such as John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed) preceded Morton, but unlike Chapman, who planted trees as a religious mission, Morton promoted tree planting as a catalysis to environmental change. He claimed that tree planting in the semi-arid plains would induce rainfall needed for agriculture and hence framed tree-planting as patriotic. By 1907, Theodore Roosevelt was speaking of Arbor Day in patriotic terms as well, “Arbor Day… [will give you] a day or part of a day to special exercises and perhaps to actual tree planting, in recognition of the importance of trees to us as a Nation.” By 1882, Arbor Day traditions were brought to schools around the country, teaching children about the duty of planting trees.
Currently, the biggest promoter of Arbor Day is the National Arbor Day Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes the planting of trees and the celebration of Arbor Day. With each $10 membership, the foundation sends the member 10 trees. On a larger scale, the foundation organizes educational programs and the Tree City program. Cities must meet requirements such as tree care ordinances, a community forestry budget of at least $2 per capita, and an official Arbor Day celebration to be officially declared a Tree City.
Arbor Day, and those who promote the celebration, have not been without critics. Some point out that Arbor Day was founded in Nebraska, a treeless plain, under the notion that the land would be better with trees, even though the landscape prior to the arrival of the European Americans did not contain trees. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has also been criticized for publishing a list of how many trees one must plant to offset environmental damage done with other activities. In this case, tree planting is seen as a way to make up for environmentally damaging behavior instead of promoting a change in behavior. In addition, the forestry industry often heralds its achievement by publicizing the number of trees planted; however, the vast monoculture tree plantations are often planted with the fastest-growing species, not with the most ecologically appropriate. Although these critiques are not against the concept of planting trees, they disagree with the rhetoric of these organizations, which tout tree planting as a panacea instead of seeing it as an act with political outcomes.
- Shaul E. Cohen. Planting Nature: Trees and the Manipulation of Environmental Stewardship in America (University of California Press, 2004);
- National Arbor Day Foundation, (homepage), www.arborday.org.