Arbor Day 2012: A History Of The Movement And Threats Of Deforestation

Friday, April 27th 2012 is Arbor Day in the U.S. The national and international celebration started many years ago. In fact, Arbor Day had already been celebrated for over 100 years by the time Earth Day came around, and it all began with a journalist.

According to the Arbor Day Foundation, in 1854, pioneer J. Sterling Morton moved to Nebraska from Detroit, Michigan. Saddened by the lack of greenery around him, he advocated for the restoration and preservation of trees through his column in the Nebraska City News. Morton educated his readers on the importance of trees for soil, shade, and as fuel and energy. He suggested the need to actively plant and conserve. Through his strong following, he became secretary of Nebraska Territory, Governor of Nebraska, and eventually the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. Morton became a crusader of forestry, and on April 10, 1872, the first Arbor Day took place in Nebraska. It was a major success, with a reported one million trees planted. Arbor Day became a legal holiday in 1885.

Despite the long history of this celebration, the world’s greenery is still in dire need of help. Although about 30% of Earth’s landmass is covered by forest, Panama-sized areas are disappearing every year, according to the National Geographic website. About half of the rainforests in the world have already disappeared. Estimates range, but rainforests once covered about 14% of the Earth and now grow over only 6%, and could be extinct within a century. Called a “modern day plague” by National Geographic, deforestation is mainly a result of human interruption. Illegal logging is a growing problem -- almost 30% of lumber is of suspicious origin, according to the Nature Conservancy, and needs of nearby farmers often result in “slash and burn” agriculture.

Daily destruction is not the only way humans are ruining the forests. Climate change has been named as a factor in brush fires, droughts, and other weather-related woodland calamities. The National Interagency Fire Center said that 2011 saw the most destructive April for wildfires, burning 290.6 acres, since 2000. According to the Palmer Drought Index, 17% of the United States was affected by severe to extreme drought, while 33% was affected by moderate to extreme drought by the end of March 2012.

In honor of Earth Day this year, National Geographic published a slideshow of the Ten Most Threatened Forests. While some entries are well known, such as the plight of the Amazon, lesser-publicized areas like the Atlantic Dry Forest in Brazil are also suffering. "This is a forest that has been under threat for a number of years," said Richard Donovan, vice president of sustainable forestry at Rainforest Alliance.

Thanks to celebrity endorsements, deforestation awareness is getting a boost. According to The Guardian, James Cameron is engaged in a “real-life Avatar” fight with Vedanta Resources to save the land of forest dwellers in India. Colin Firth recently released a video campaigning to save the Awá tribe, who live in Brazil’s Amazon forest. “The film shows the Awá's close relationship with the forest, climbing trees to gather fruit and even adopting and breastfeeding orphaned monkeys,” The Guardian wrote about Firth’s subjects.

Even in the face of tragedy, Arbor Day is an opportunity to celebrate the positive impact trees have on our lives. In a recent Sierra Club video for Earth Day, Kristin Bauer said the California Redwood Forest is her favorite destination in the world. And in the video below, Bette Midler discusses how growing up in Hawaii has contributed to her deep set appreciation for trees, and the importance of nature.

Wondering how you can help this Arbor Day? Read Mother Nature Network’s 5 Ways To Stop Deforestation, or get involved with the Nature Conservancy’s incentives. Tell us about your Arbor Day plans in the comments below!