The Other “Earth Day”

Photo by Reed Galin
Photo by Reed Galin

There is another “Earth Day” that’s been around for, oh, about a hundred years longer than the one we mark on April 22. It’s Arbor Day, though few people can tell you when it is. In fact, nowadays few seem to even know what it is.

Julius Sterling Morton would be crestfallen that the tradition he started shortly after the Civil War is so little remembered. The soon-to-be Secretary of Agriculture under President Grover Cleveland was a big believer in the trans formative power of trees. He reckoned that what his Nebraska farm needed were trees, to gird against both the relentless winter wind and intense summer sun. The idea caught on. When the state marked its first official Arbor Day in 1872, Cornhuskers are said to have planted a million trees (I’ve driven through Nebraska and I’m not sure where they all went).

During the Nixon administration, Arbor Day was designated as the last Friday in April, another reason why it languishes in the shadow of Earth Day. Adding to the confusion is that different states celebrate it at different times, depending on the local climate. In Florida, it’s the third Friday in January. Here in California, it’s not even a “day.” It’s a week. The calendar maintained by the Arbor Day Foundation gives the date of California’s Arbor Day as “March 7-14,” which happens to be right now.

The Arbor Day spirit endures at places like the Sacramento Tree Foundation, which has been using funds from the local utility, SMUD, to fill out the urban canopy and reduce the effect of urban heat islands. Over the past 25 years, the Foundation has orchestrated the planting of 1.25 million trees. The goal is five million. That’s a lot of trees but then it takes a lot of trees to cool down a metro area the size of Sacramento. The shade freaks at SMUD have done the math and say that to make any measurable difference in temperature, you have to add about 10% to the urban canopy.

It’s doubtful that Julius Sterling Morton had urban heat islands or carbon sequestration in mind, back in 19th century Nebraska. He was probably just trying to get out of the damn wind. But given the crucial role of trees in storing carbon and recent reports documenting trees dying off at an alarming rate throughout the West, now seems like a terrific time to exhume Arbor Day from the Tomb of the Unknown Occasion.

The Other “Earth Day” 13 March,2009Craig Miller


Craig Miller

Craig is a KQED Science editor, specializing in weather, climate, water & energy issues, with a little seismology thrown in just to shake things up. Prior to his current position, he launched and led the station's award-winning multimedia project, Climate Watch. Craig is also an accomplished writer/producer of television documentaries, with a focus on natural resource issues.

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