Arbor Day: The tree planter’s holiday

The history of Arbor Day and why it matters to people who love trees
The trees we plant on Arbor Day will benefit others for generations to come.

Each spring, Colorado cities and towns celebrate Arbor Day. This day is very important to the 90-plus communities and universities in the state that have been designated as a Tree City USA or Tree Campus USA by the Arbor Day Foundation.

[Related: Why professional standards matter to arborists]

The State Legislature thought the day was important enough to write it into Colorado law in an 1889 statute, which states that “the third Friday in April of each year shall be set apart and known as ‘Arbor Day,’ to be observed by the people of this state in the planting of forest trees for the benefit and adornment of public and private grounds, places and ways … .” This year marks the 130th anniversary celebration of that law.

The first Arbor Day was the brainchild of J. Sterling Morton, who at the time of its creation was the secretary of the Nebraska territory. In his roles as a newspaper editor and a public servant, he was a staunch advocate of tree planting. Coming from the Midwest to live in a tree-less territory, he knew the value of having trees, and convinced the Nebraska Board of Agriculture to set aside a day for tree planting called “Arbor Day.” That first celebration was on April 10, 1872.

[Related: Arborists give back to servicemembers who gave all]

Arbor Day represents a very personal holiday for many people, perhaps in part because trees often outlast those who plant them. In the spring of 1938, when my father was 10 years old, he and his third-grade classmates at Bessemer Elementary in Pueblo planted a Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens) to celebrate Arbor Day. I was able to visit that school with my father decades later, to look at the spruce he helped plant. Unfortunately, his tree had been removed, but there were other spruces nearby still beautifying the school campus.

This spring, I will be celebrating my 25th consecutive season personally assisting Colorado towns and cities as they recognize Arbor Day. I myself have helped plant trees to:

  • Honor the memory of John Denver in Aspen
  • Shelter and feed livestock
  • Beautify school campuses
  • Mitigate extreme air temperatures through shading
  • Enhance a downtown shopping experience
  • Buffer the sound of nearby traffic
  • Screen unsightly views
  • Diversify the urban forest
  • Reforest a mountainside devastated by wildfire
  • Create an outdoor arboretum
  • Clean the air and sequester carbon from the atmosphere

Tomorrow, and long after I am gone, those trees will continue to meet our planting objectives for the future, and that is a legacy to be proud of. I encourage others to plant trees this year to recognize Arbor Day, and to allow others to benefit from their efforts for decades to come.

Vince Urbina is an urban & community forestry specialist for the Colorado State Forest Service. His work and tree interests take him all over the Rocky Mountain Region teaching, sharing and mentoring others interested in trees.

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