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Time for tree planting

Farmstead Forest: Tree planting in the U.S. has a rich, colorful tradition.

Curt Arens, Editor, Nebraska Farmer

June 26, 2024

3 Min Read
Ponderosa pine
TREE-PLANTING HEROES: This Ponderosa pine is part of a replanting effort on a ranch in Nebraska’s Pine Ridge in Sheridan County. The area was scorched by wildfires in 2012. American farmers have a long history of tree planting that goes back to colonial days. Photos by Curt Arens

Corn and soybean planters might be rolling through the fields, but spring is also a time to plant trees.

Arbor Day, that day we dedicate to planting trees, is celebrated at different times in different states, depending on the optimal time to plant a tree in the ground.

Our nation has a long, rich and colorful history of tree planting, and forest and timber management. It is interesting to look back at the major players, instrumental legislation and the historic benefits from those U.S. tree-planting efforts.

We gleaned these tidbits of heritage from a weathered USDA Forest Service publication called “Highlights in the History of Forest Conservation,” dated March 1976, combined with information from the Nebraska Forest Service and National Arbor Day Foundation.

It was noted in the USDA Forest Service publication’s introduction that, “It is generally accepted today that there still remains about two-thirds of the original forestlands. This, despite the fact that as early as 1865, a timber famine was predicted within 30 years.”

Here are some notable highlights from the beginning:

1626. Plymouth Colony passed an ordinance prohibiting cutting timber on lands within the colony without prior consent.

1710. The first community forest in the U.S. was established at Newington, N.H.

1774. John Chapman, also known as Johnny Appleseed, was born in Leominster, Mass.

1870. A survey of forest resources was included for the first time in the U.S. census.

1872. J. Sterling Morton, who was serving on the Nebraska State Board of Agriculture, proposed a day devoted to planting trees. His proposal, which called for the observance of Arbor Day, was approved, and the first Arbor Day was held. Nebraskans were said to have planted more than 1 million trees that day.

1873. The Timber Culture Act was passed, giving settlers deed to public lands in return for growing trees that would make life more livable on the Great Plains.

1881. The forest agency within USDA was made into the Division of Forestry.

1891. The president was given the power to establish forest reserves from public domain, effectively founding the National Forest System.

1920. More than 45 states and U.S. territories are celebrating Arbor Day.

1924. The Clarke-McNary Act of 1924 allowed the purchase of land to enlarge the National Forest System and enabled the U.S. secretary of agriculture to work cooperatively with state officials for better forest protection and reforestation efforts with private landowners. The law led to millions of “Clarke-McNary” trees being planted in shelterbelts and conservation plantings across the country.

1935. The Soil Conservation Service was established, and the first shelterbelt trees were planted as part of the new Prairie States Forestry Project. In seven years, more than 217 million trees were planted, with 30,000 farmers participating.

1945. Smokey Bear became the national symbol for prevention of forest fires.

1970. President Richard Nixon recognized Arbor Day nationwide, although it is celebrated at different dates today in different states because of unique climate conditions in various parts of the country.

1972. The National Arbor Day Foundation is founded to celebrate the centennial of the first Arbor Day observance.

1976. The National Arbor Day Foundation establishes its popular Tree City USA designation. Today, 3,652 communities are a part of the program, responsible for the planting of nearly 1 million trees.

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About the Author(s)

Curt Arens

Editor, Nebraska Farmer

Curt Arens began writing about Nebraska’s farm families when he was in high school. Before joining Farm Progress as a field editor in April 2010, he had worked as a freelance farm writer for 27 years, first for newspapers and then for farm magazines, including Nebraska Farmer.

His real full-time career, however, during that same period was farming his family’s fourth generation land in northeast Nebraska. He also operated his Christmas tree farm and grew black oil sunflowers for wild birdseed. Curt continues to raise corn, soybeans and alfalfa and runs a cow-calf herd.

Curt and his wife Donna have four children, Lauren, Taylor, Zachary and Benjamin. They are active in their church and St. Rose School in Crofton, where Donna teaches and their children attend classes.

Previously, the 1986 University of Nebraska animal science graduate wrote a weekly rural life column, developed a farm radio program and wrote books about farm direct marketing and farmers markets. He received media honors from the Nebraska Forest Service, Center for Rural Affairs and Northeast Nebraska Experimental Farm Association.

He wrote about the spiritual side of farming in his 2008 book, “Down to Earth: Celebrating a Blessed Life on the Land,” garnering a Catholic Press Association award.

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