"Each generation takes the earth as trustees. We ought to bequeath to posterity as many forests and orchards as we have exhausted and consumed." These were the words of J. Sterling Morton, an editor of Nebraska's first newspaper, who in 1872 proposed a tree-planting holiday to be called Arbor Day. Prizes were offered to counties for properly planting the largest number of trees on that day. It has been estimated that more than 1 million trees were planted that first Arbor Day. The idea spread. By 1894, Arbor Day was celebrated in every state.

Originally, Arbor Day was established to help early settlers meet their needs for fuel, food, building material and wind breaks. Today we still depend upon trees for many consumer products. Paper, lumber, furniture, fruits, nuts, fuel and medicines are just a few of the items that trees provide. But what is becoming increasingly clear is how essential trees and forests are to maintaining a healthy and productive environment.

Trees and other green plants give us oxygen and reduce air pollution. Through a process known as photosynthesis, plants use sunlight, carbon dioxide, water and a few nutrients to produce their own food. Oxygen is released as a byproduct. Trees also reduce the greenhouse effect, which is caused when certain gasses accumulate in the upper atmosphere prevent heat from radiating back into space. Carbon dioxide, released by the burning of fossil fuels, is one of the major heat-trapping gases. In one year, a healthy growing tree takes in about 26 pounds of carbon dioxide releases enough oxygen to support four people.

Trees help to conserve both land and water resources. Trees growing alongside streams and rivers has a byproduct. Trees also reduce the greenhouse effect, which is caused when certain gasses accumulate in the upper atmosphere prevent heat from radiating back into space. Carbon dioxide, released by the burning of fossil fuels, is one of the major heat-trapping gases. In one year, a healthy growing tree takes in about 26 pounds of carbon dioxide releases enough oxygen to support four people.

Trees help to conserve both land and water resources. Trees growing alongside streams and rivers hold soil in place with their roots. Leaves slow the erosive force of rain by intercepting and slowing precipitation. By increasing the infiltration of water into the ground, trees reduce runoff that may often contain pollutants such as sediment, fertilizers and chemicals. Shade cools water, maintaining temperatures suitable for fish and other aquatic wildlife. Leaves dropped by trees each year provide nutrients to both soil and water.

If placed strategically around buildings, trees help conserve energy by reducing the need for heating and air conditioning. Deciduous trees, those that lose their leaves each year, provide shade and block heat from the sun during the summer. These are best planted on the south and west sides of buildings. In winter, after the leaves have fallen, they allow more sunlight and heat to enter. Evergreens, trees that retain their leaves or needles year-round, provide wind breaks. To intercept cold winter winds, these should be planted on the north side of a building.

Trees and forests are critical for much of this nation's wildlife. Much of our wildlife depends upon trees for food, shelter and nesting or nursery areas. Trees that produce edible and nutritious nuts, seeds or fruit are especially valuable to wildlife. Mammals, birds, reptiles amphibians and insects use small holes or cavities in larger trees for nesting and hibernating. Even young trees provide both nesting sites for breeding birds and resting spots for migrating birds. Buds are eaten by birds and small mammals, flowers provide nectar for insects and hummingbirds and cavities provide shelter. One mature tree can support dozens of wildlife species throughout the year. Evergreens trees, like cedar, juniper and holly are particularly valuable to wildlife. Some deciduous trees high in wildlife value include black cherry, red maple, river birch, dogwood, American beech, black gum, hickory, walnut and a variety of oaks.

Try as we might to set ourselves apart from these giants of the plant world, civilization has always been linked to trees. The discovery of fire and inventions such as the wheel, paper, boats, many of our musical instruments, the airplane and all rubber products would have been impossible without trees. In many of the major religions of the world, trees represent spirits, gods, paradise, knowledge, fertility, strength and stability.

Trees improve the quality of our lives. As children we climb them to hang swings or build forts. We retreat to the forest in search of solitude or adventure. Trees attract insects, birds and mammals to an otherwise sterile suburbia or concrete city. Landscaping with trees can increase the value of both residential and commercial property by as much as 20 percent. Every year, trees paint our autumn landscape in a blaze of fiery colors. We simply cannot imagine our world without them. Theodore Roosevelt once said, "A people without children would face a hopeless future; a country without trees is almost as hopeless."

The following is a list of when states will be celebrating Arbor Day this year:

  • Delaware - Last Friday in April, April 28
  • District of Columbia - Last Friday in April, April 28
  • Maryland - First Wednesday in April, April 5
  • New York - Last Friday in April, April 28
  • Pennsylvania - Last Friday in April, April 28
  • Virginia - Second Friday in April, April 14
  • West Virginia - Second Friday in April, April 14
  • National Arbor Day 1995 will be celebrated on April 28.

For more information about planting trees, Arbor Day celebrations or educational curricula focusing on trees contact:

The National Arbor Day Foundation
100 Arbor Avenue
Nebraska City, NE 68410