What Arbor Day Is — And How It Came To Be

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It’s a big week for nature lovers: this past Monday was Earth Day, and today is Arbor Day. Far fewer people are familiar with the tree-celebrating latter holiday, which is celebrated every final Friday of April, than the former. Arbor Day is no less meaningful an occasion, though, and its remarkable roots attest to the power it still has today.

On the inaugural Arbor Day in 1872, a whopping one million trees were planted. This massive debut celebration keeps Arbor Day relevant nearly 150 years later, even as the holiday has expanded far beyond its humble origins. The seeds of the 1872 planting marathon can be traced to 1854, when the journalist J. Sterling Morton relocated to Nebraska — which didn’t become a U.S. state for another 13 years — from Detroit. Morton and his wife prioritized nature and gardening, so they populated the land they bought with trees, flowers, and shrubbery galore.

Morton was eventually hired to oversee Nebraska’s leading newspaper. There, he acquired the platform to spread his love for trees — certainly his favorite type of plant — to a massive audience, which turned out to share his passion. Nebraskans, living in a plain- and field-heavy region, realized that they needed more trees to break winds and thereby keep vital agricultural soil in place. They also saw trees as nature’s best sunblock, not to mention great sources of vital wood for building.

With a large community at his side, Morton eventually ascended to the role of Nebraska’s secretary. It was in this position, in early 1872, that Morton first proposed the holiday that would become Arbor Day. Morton stressed the need for a communal gathering to plant trees, and the State Board of Agriculture heard him loud and clear. Thus, on April 10th of that year, Arbor Day debuted, resulting in the planting of one million trees — and the spark of a national movement.

By 1882, schools across the country had begun encouraging students to step out of their classrooms for Arbor Day and plant trees. By 1885, Arbor Day had acquired legal holiday status in Nebraska. At the turn of the 20th century, every U.S. state that was in the Union at the time, except Delaware, honored Arbor Day. Even other countries caught wind of the occasion — Japan had, by this time, implemented the holiday, and many European countries, not to mention Canada and Australia, would soon do the same.

Despite the massive momentum that Arbor Day had gathered at this time, it would take more than another half-century for the holiday to achieve full national holiday status. In 1970, then-President Richard Nixon officially declared Arbor Day a national holiday. Nixon’s proclamation arrived alongside such environmentally friendly moves as the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Morton, of course, did not get to live to see Nixon’s officializing of Arbor Day — he died in 1902 — but today, at the National Hall of Fame in Washington, D.C., he is immortalized in a statue that labels him “the Father of Arbor Day.”

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