Planting trees is not a new idea. J. Sterling Morton proposed a tree planting holiday, Arbor Day, in Nebraska back in 1872.

An estimated 1 million trees were planted that first Arbor Day and the idea quickly spread. By 1894, Arbor Day was celebrated in every state.

Arbor Day was established primarily to help early settlers meet their needs for fuel, food, building materials and windbreaks.

Today, we still depend upon forests for many consumer products. Paper, lumber, furniture, fruits, nuts, fuel and medicine are just a few of the items that trees provide. What is becoming increasing clear is how essential forests are to maintaining a healthy and productive environment.

Forests help to conserve both land and water resources. Trees growing along streams and rivers hold the soil in place with their roots. And, by increasing the infiltration of water into the ground, trees reduce runoff that often contains such pollutants as sediment, fertilizers and chemicals.

Leaves, meanwhile, slow the erosive force of rain by intercepting and slowing precipitation. When they fall, leaves add nutrients to both the soil and water. Their shade cools the water, maintaining temperatures suitable for fish and other aquatic wildlife.

Forests also provide oxygen and reduce air pollution.

During photosynthesis, trees combine sunlight, carbon dioxide, water and a few nutrients to produce their own food. Oxygen is released as a by-product of this process.

By using carbon dioxide in the air, photosynthesis also reduces the greenhouse effect, a buildup of gases that prevents heat from radiating back into space. Carbon dioxide, released by the burning of fossil fuels, is one of the major heat-trapping gases.

Forests are critical for much of this nation’s wildlife, providing 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 nesting sites for breeding birds and resting spots for migrating birds. One mature tree can support dozens of wildlife species throughout the year.

Forests help to regulate the temperature, cooling areas in the summer. Even urban and suburban environments can benefit from trees. Placed strategically around buildings, trees conserve energy by reducing heating and air conditioning costs.

Deciduous trees, which lose their leaves each year, provide shade and block heat from the sun during the summer, particularly when planted on the south and west sides of buildings.

In the winter, after the leaves have fallen, they allow more sunlight and heat to enter. Evergreens, which retain their leaves or needles year-round, provide wind breaks. To intercept cold winter winds, trees should be planted on the north side of a building.

As communities grow, we must try to conserve forests for the health of the Bay, its wildlife and and ourselves.

In addition to conserving forests, we must protect against fragmentation, in which large tracts of forests are carved up into smaller tracts. Fragmentation disrupts animal travel corridors; increases the potential for flooding; changes what wildlife the forest can support; increases the chance of an invasion by exotic, undesirable plants; exposes the interior; and reduces the number of wildlife species.

Try as we might to set ourselves apart from these giants of the plant world, civilization has always been linked to trees, and the loss of forests affects every one of us. 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 forests.

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. Forests provide many recreational opportunities, including bird watching, hiking and camping.

Trees attract insects, birds and mammals to an otherwise sterile suburbia or concrete city. Every year, they paint our autumn landscape in a blaze of fiery colors. We simply cannot imagine our world without trees.

Whether you’re adding a few trees to your home, creating a buffer or restoring a forest, plant trees that are native to your area. Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), Virginia pine (Pinus virginiana) and American holly (Ilex opaca) are examples of evergreens native to the Chesapeake Bay area. Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis) black cherry (Prunus serotina), red maple (Acer rubrum), flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), American beech (Fagus grandifolia), white ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica), black walnut (Juglans nigra) and white oak (Quercus alba) are just a few of our native deciduous trees.

For information about trees and other vegetation to plant, see the native plant list at www.fws.gov/r5cbfo/Bayscapes.htm or see an expanded version broken down by Coastal Plain, Piedmont and Mountain regions at www.nps.gov/plants

Your state Native Plant Society or Cooperative Extension Service can provide additional information about native plants.