Arbor Day: The Roots of the Modern Environmental Movement

Figure 1: 1882 Celebration of Arbor Day Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper

The idea for Arbor Day came from a Nebraska newspaper editor named J. Sterling Morton. Like most of Nebraska’s citizens in the 1860s, Morton was a homestead farmer, newly relocated from the east. The settlers were encouraged to settle Nebraska by the Homestead Act of 1862. Attracted by the description of mild climate and deep top soil, families moved to the tall grass prairies in droves. They were surprised, however, to find the landscape so empty of the trees that they would need for homebuilding, fuel, shade, and windbreak. So when the Arbor Day proposal was put forth on the editorial¬†page of the Nebraska City News, the idea was embraced by those missing the comfort and utility of trees. When the first Arbor Day was celebrated on April 10, 1872, Nebraska school children planted more than a million trees.
Due to rapid settlement and industrialization of the late 19th century, Americans consumed an enormous amount of forest resources Between 1850 and 1900, the population of America tripled while the crop land increased by over four times. Every person added to the U.S. during the 19th century put another three to four acres under the plow. During the sixty years between 1850 and 1910, the nations farmers cleared at an average of 13.5 square miles a day.

As the rapid settlement and industrialization of the late 1800’s rapidly deforested millions of acres of trees, concern for the preservation and conservation of resources became a hot political topic. Preservationists like John Muir wanted the remaining forests protected from future cutting. Conservationists like Gifford Pinchot wanted to harvest timber, but more scientifically. By 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt realized that Arbor Day–tree planting by school children–was something both preservationists and conservationist could easily support. America responded whole heartedly and laws promoting both preservation and conservation were easily passed through congress. The celebration of Arbor Day thus became a patriotic event. By 1902, many eastern woodlands had been reduced to tree-stump forests. The word conservation became a household word as families, newspaper editors and politicians proposed the preservation and repair of dwindling natural resources. Planting trees on Arbor Day was viewed as the patriotic duty of every good citizen. Arbor Day thus became the symbol of the new era of conservation, touted from the bully pulpit by the President himself. Vicks Magazine published a letter from the President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 extolling the importance of the endeavor to school children.

Transcription of Vicks Magazine