Durham celebrates 30 years as a Tree City USA community

Mar. 09, 2013 @ 08:42 AM

We have a lot of holidays whose origins are pretty straightforward; big-time birthdays, religious holidays, secularized holidays and historically important dates.  We also celebrate motherhood, fatherhood, the labor movement, our armed forces, the coming of Spring, groundhogs and our love of the planet.

Tucked into the calendar between Earth Day and May Day is our national observance of Arbor Day, but what is it and where did it come from?

I say “national observance” because Arbor Day, as a practical holiday to promote tree care and planting, can’t occur throughout the US on the same date. Here in North Carolina we celebrate it on the first Friday following March 15th; this year it’s March 22.  By way of comparison, Florida celebrates it in January, and Maine celebrates it in May.

The holiday came about when Julius Sterling Morton moved west with his family from Detroit to the Nebraska Territory in 1854 and found the treeless expanse of prairie to be missing something. He lost no time in planting trees around his newly acquired property, and as editor of the territory’s first newspaper, he encouraged tree planting and gave out tips on selection and technique.

His readers were enthusiastic recipients of this information, having come to realize how important trees are to 19th century agriculture and settlement.  Out west, trees provided shade, shelter, fuel and important windbreaks to keep soil in place after the protection of the native grasses was removed.

When Morton rose to become the Secretary of the Territory, he carried his passion for trees and tree planting to his new office, getting the State Board of Agriculture to adopt April 10, 1872, as “Arbor Day” - a one-time event. The response was overwhelming, with as many as 1 million new trees planted on that single day. 

Subsequently, the new state of Nebraska elected to hold it as an annual celebration from 1874 onward and in 1885 switched the date to April 22nd (Morton’s birthday).  National recognition came in 1882, and some form of the holiday has subsequently been adopted by 38 other countries across the world.

In modern times, the importance of trees isn’t quite as obvious as it was to our pioneer predecessors.  We don’t face windy treeless expanses or fire-prone slash piles left by questionable timber harvesting practices.    

Whether we appreciate it or not, we are the beneficiaries of the Progressive Era which gave rise to a great burst of urban tree planting. This included our own local effort which has blessed Durham with its hallmark canopy of oak trees.

Despite our evident riches, we should not take trees for granted.  Keeping that from happening is the mission of the Arbor Day foundation’s Tree City USA program.  Being a 30-year member of this group is a real accomplishment for Durham. It means that for 30 consecutive years we have had an observance of Arbor Day complete with mayoral proclamation.  We also have staffed an urban forestry program and supported it with a tree ordinance and a budget of at least $2 per capita.

Durham can also be proud of the fact that Duke University has been awarded status as a “Tree Campus USA” member for five years as of February. This designation involves many of the requirements for “Tree City,” and is a testimony to the campus’ commitment to being a green neighbor.

All residents are invited to celebrate this year’s Arbor Day March 22 at 11 a.m. right across from City Hall in the newly landscaped Black Wall Street Plaza.  If you want to plant a tree, there will be free ones given away at the ceremony, and you’ll witness Durham receiving its historic 30-year recognition for being a “Tree City USA.” 

Alex Johnson is Durham’s urban forestry manager. His column appears in The Durham Herald on the second Sunday of each month.