CRADLING A CHERRY sapling in her hands, 11-year-old Mya Bartman has big plans for the young tree—a gift to her mother on Arbor Day in Nebraska City, Neb. (pop. 7,289). “[I’m planting it] at my house, for my mom, because she wants a Japanese flowering tree,” Mya declares. Observing the holiday last year at the birthplace of Arbor Day, Mya and other local schoolchildren learned that with proper planting and care, their cherry saplings can grow 20 feet tall and become beautiful flowering trees.
“[Trees] help make oxygen, and we need oxygen to breathe!” says Will Funke, 11, surrounded by towering oaks and spruce at the home of Arbor Day founder J. Sterling Morton.
Each spring, schoolchildren in Nebraska City attend Arbor Day programs at Arbor Lodge State Historic Park, where they learn about the roots of the holiday and the importance of trees to the environment. Similar presentations take place across the nation, planting seeds of appreciation for trees and nature.
“Children are our future,” explains park superintendent Randy Fox, 61. “If you can sell kids on planting trees, you’ve done the right thing.”
A growing cause For more than four decades, trees have been the daily focus of the Nebraska City-based Arbor Day Foundation, which plants and distributes more than 10 million trees annually. The reason: Trees cool cities, buffer rivers and streams, serve as windbreaks, and help control erosion and pollution, says John Rosenow, 64, president of the nonprofit conservation and education organization.
“We care about the environment broadly, but focus on how trees can be part of the solution,” says Rosenow, who in 1972 helped launch the foundation on the 100th anniversary of the first Arbor Day. The group’s mission—to inspire people to plant, nurture and celebrate trees—grew out of the 19th-century work of J. Sterling Morton. A visionary and conservationist, Morton encountered a nearly treeless prairie when he moved with his bride, Caroline, from Michigan to Nebraska in 1854. Staking a claim in Nebraska City, the newspaper editor began planting, importing and experimenting with trees. He gave away saplings, many to pioneers headed west. In 1872, Morton initiated Arbor Day to spread his passion. That year, Nebraskans planted 1 million trees.
A respected agriculturalist, Morton eventually became the nation’s agriculture secretary under President Grover Cleveland. “He was a man ahead of his time,” Rosenow says. In the 1800s, when most Americans saw forests as virtually inexhaustible, Morton urged sustainability. Today with nearly 1 million members, the foundation and its partners work to preserve forests across the globe; restore habitat and forest ecosystems; encourage and maintain urban forests; replace trees in areas hit by natural disasters; and design playgrounds that connect children with nature.
The foundation began its Tree City USA program in 1976 to address the haphazard way trees were being managed in America’s towns and cities. Today, the network includes more than 3,400 cities, including Summersville, W.Va. (pop. 3,572), which became a Tree City in 2008. “We’ve beautified our city, planted hundreds of trees, improved the canopy, and provided more shade and greater diversity,” says Fred Williams, 75, who helped spearhead Summersville’s tree initiative. “It’s a lasting legacy.”
To become a Tree City, a community must maintain a tree department or board, pass an ordinance to guide planting and care, spend at least $2 per capita on forestry, and celebrate Arbor Day. Replanting trees after a natural disaster is another focus of the foundation, which established a program to assist community restoration efforts after
Hurricane Katrina destroyed thousands of trees along the Gulf Coast in 2005. In New Orleans, it partnered with the National Audubon Society to replace thousands of trees. The foundation provided similar disaster relief after tornados struck Alabama and Missouri in 2011 and wildfires swept through historic Lost Pines Forest that same year in central Texas. Cheré Coen, 53, a volunteer from Lafayette, La., personally distributed 47,000 trees—including bald cypress, live oak, red oak and swamp maples in the four years following hurricanes Katrina and Rita. “It was fantastic. I felt like Johnny Appleseed!” Coen says.
Perhaps no landscape is more devastating to view than a forest decimated by wildfire, insects or disease. So, for more than a quarter century, the foundation has helped to replant America’s forests with more than 42 million trees. Efforts began in 1988 when fires swept through Yellowstone National Park, prompting the U.S. Forest Service to ask for assistance.
“These are national treasures,” Rosenow says of America’s forests. “They provide wood for our homes, habitat for wildlife, clean air, and drinking water for millions of us. Our forests are our future.”