Nation's first Arbor Day celebration Nebraska City, NE, April 10, 1872, 150 years ago. Photo courtesy Arbor Day Foundation.

This year is turning into a colossal tree year. First off, there are anniversary years for Arbor Day (150 years), and the Arbor Day Foundation which is celebrating five decades of planting trees. More locally the City of Cottage Grove was named the 2022 “Oregon Tree City of the Year” by Oregon Community Trees and Oregon Department of Forestry. And on April 2, at Coiner Park, Cottage Grove residents can choose from a wide variety of native and horticultural trees at the “Arbor Day Tree Giveaway.” Through a grant there will be over 900 free trees that can be had for the asking for your own Arbor Day celebration and to add to our urban tree canopy.

With a footprint of just under 4 square miles, Cottage Grove is served by the official Urban Forestry Advisory Council (UFC). This group of volunteer residents was called into being by the City Council on Dec. 12, 1994, specifically to assist in developing an urban forestry plan, make recommendations to improve the health of the urban forest, and to pursue grants to improve the quality of the forest within the city limits. Like the Lorax the UFC “speaks for the trees.”

The founding year of the UFC also was marked by Cottage Grove being first recognized as a “Tree City.” In fact, having a “tree board’’ was one of the requirements for this designation. The title has been held for 28 years now with the city receiving special recognition for five growth years (2015, 2018-21) so far.

All about the trees

Before branching out on tree topics let’s not get stumped by what it’s all about. 

In a Timber Town like ours, the value of trees is well understood as a renewable resource. There are still many Grovers who are now or have lived off working in the woods. There is also the recreational value of hiking and camping in the forests that are just outside our doorsteps.

 But urban forestry is something different. Within the city limits exists a green oasis of trees, our urban canopy, that offers us many benefits. The urban trees provide beauty, cooling shade, absorb urban sound and carbon dioxide, raise property values, and in general take the edge off living in an unnatural environment, constructed primarily of right angles. A living, growing, forest right in our midst.  

A lot of this forest is intentional. In my neighborhood there are a preponderance of Big Leaf Maples lining the streets, intentionally planted, it is said, over a hundred years ago. Some trees are planted by squirrels, or a chance seed falling on fertile ground and either escaping notice till its part of the landscape or finding acceptance and being encouraged. Some folks plant trees that will bear fruit, others flowers, or to add their own touch to their property. Trees provide habitat for birds, small mammals and beneficial insects, and that is only right, they were here before us. 

As settlers spread across the eastern woodlands, trees seemed to be in endless supply. They cut what they needed to build log cabins, later sawing them into lumber, cleared land and burned the uprooted trees, then moved on. When they hit the broad prairies they missed the trees and the idea of conserving forests by planting trees and putting them where they hadn’t been before gave birth to Arbor Day in this country.

Not altogether a new idea, the first recorded Arbor Day celebration was held in 1594 outside of the Spanish Village of Mondoñedo. Organized by their forward thinking Mayor, a grove of lime and horse-chestnut trees were planted and descendents of those trees still stand, commemorated by a simple granite marker.

A strange birth state

Stateside Arbor Day had its birth in a place practically devoid of trees. Settlers in the Nebraska Territory were flummoxed when they attempted to put down roots as there were very few trees to hold down the soil or provide windbreaks or shade and little usable wood to use for fuel or construction. The scanty trees found growing along rivers consisted of cedars, chokecherry and willows. So the Nebraska pioneers did what the natives had done before them, used the “Nebraska Marble,” sod blocks, to build their homes.

J. Sterling Morton, who had moved to the Nebraska Territory in 1854, became editor of a local newspaper and was appointed as Territorial Secretary, along with filling other state offices, including acting governor. Missing the forests he had grown up with back east, he consistently used his bully pulpit to urge Nebraskans to plant trees. Being a mover and shaker, Morton proposed a tree planting holiday at a meeting of the State Board of Agriculture in January of 1872 to be called “Arbor Day.” This seed found good soil and the nation’s first celebration of tree planting was held April 10, 1872. Prizes for individuals and counties that planted most trees properly were offered and it is estimated that over a million trees ended up in the ground on that first Arbor Day.

Nebraska Gov. Robert Furnas declared April 10, 1874, Arbor Day, and by 1885 it had become an official state holiday, celebrated on April 22. By 1920 this green idea had spread to more than 45 states and territories. Very early in the movement schools and their pupils became prominent in this tree planting movement. Children learned about the importance of trees and often received one to plant at home.  

Morton salts a legacy

Just a few Morton footnotes, recognized as a respected agriculturist, he served as Secretary of Agriculture in Grover Cleveland’s administration, was known for his fierce opposition to cutting trees for Christmas “decoration,” and his son, Joy Morton, was the founder of the Morton Salt Company. Current UFC member Debra Bartlett is a Morton descendent and fellow tree enthusiast.

Today Arbor Day is celebrated in all fifty states, many of them observing the date of the last Friday of April, which is the official National Arbor Day and falls on April 29 this year. Others set their Arbor Day to coincide when conditions are better for tree planting. Earlier in the south, later in the far north. And 2022 is a big year, 150 years from that first Morton inspired tree planting party.

Centennial celebration

For the centennial celebration of that first blooming, the Arbor Day Foundation was formed in 1972. This 501(c)(3) nonprofit membership organization, over a million strong, has the goal of “to inspire people to plant, nurture and celebrate trees.” Besides inspiration they provide education and outreach to ensure that the right trees are planted in the right places. And they work with growers and state forestry agencies to get the trees to the people. Over 500 million so far. The organization is based in Nebraska, home of the first Arbor Day.

Not limited to the USA, Arbor Day has gone global. Around the world people are seeing the value of planting trees and the foundation is there, insuring the best trees for the job and seeing that they are planted right.

Circling back to our Tree City title. This program was created in 1976 by the Arbor Day Foundation in partnership with the USDA Forestry Service and the National Association of State Foresters with the express purpose to help cities care for and celebrate their urban forests. Just 46 cities stepped up to the plate that first year, a number that has grown to over 3,600 today.  

Cottage Grove’s participation in the program for 28 years was part of our selection of the top “Oregon Tree City” recognition this year. Other qualifications cited in the honor were the five growth awards, most recently given for completing the city tree canopy survey, recycling and reusing woody debris, and expanding the UFC.  

In accepting this title, Eric Mongan, city planner, stated, “Being a Tree City USA recognized that the community has changed our way of thinking about our urban forest. From adopting an approved street tree list to holding annual Arbor Day celebrations, Tree City status has raised local awareness of proper care and management practices of public and private trees.”

Tree giveaway April 2

And what better way to celebrate being a tree city than adding to its canopy. That is the thinking behind the tree giveaway on Saturday, April 2, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The UFC goal is to get the tree canopy in Cottage Grove up to 28%. That will require quite a few trees but the 900 offered at Coiner Park is a good start. A few of the species up for grabs are five types of maple, two oak species, redbud, apple, cedar, quaking aspen, and some flowering trees. For a complete list see the City of Cottage Grove Friday Update on the city website. 

Information booths will be at the event from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. as will guidance on selecting the right tree for your location as well as help in getting your tree off to a good start.

In picking a tree you want to make sure its future growth will fit well in the space available. Trees come in low, medium, and tall sizes. In choosing a tree you need to think ahead so that your lives together will be happy.

A great resource helping locate a planting site that won’t run afoul of utility services and general home tree care can be found at: treesaregood.org/treeowner. 

In general, call before you dig, fit the type of tree to the zone available, prepare the soil for a good start, and water it well for the first couple of years. Trees don’t damage sewer lines but will grow into leaky or faulty pipes, seeking water and nutrients.

Funding for the free trees comes through a grant from the Serendipity Foundation, and T.R.E.E.S., an arm of Arborday.com, not your tax dollars.

Another project the UFC has been working on is seeking official recognition of local “heritage trees.” This program is managed by the Oregon Travel Information Council which describes heritage trees as, “Honored groves, single trees or groups of trees that have something in common with one another no matter what the species – they are trees that tell a story; trees that confound and astound; trees that educate both Oregonians and visitors about significant people or events from the past; trees that have survived natural disasters or stand as silent sentries to the passage of time.” A subcommittee has made two selections and the UFC will bring the matter before council for approval before sending in the applications. If selected these two Heritage Tree sites will join the over 50 others on the state Tree Map, allowing them to be found by visitors and travelers. Fingers crossed.

It takes somewhat of an optimist to plant a tree as they grow slow in terms of mankind. Trees can live hundreds of years, and in some cases thousands.  

Debra Bartlet, founder of Weplantnc.org, and UFC member, invites Grovers to come out April 2 and make a difference. “We are thankful to everyone who plants a tree. Trees are a key solution to our changing climate and well being. The UFC encourages you to add to our tree canopy one tree at a time, and when better than April 2nd? We are delighted to offer 900 trees on this 150th Anniversary of Arbor Day. We plant trees for a healthier and greener future.”

 Grab a shovel Grovers and make a difference for you and future citizens, plant a tree!

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