Arbor Day Reminder: Protect Our Urban Forests

spring_trees_cropIt’s been one long, cold spring so far here in Worcester, but the trees are finally in bloom. The Norway and sugar maples that line so many miles of our city’s streets are bursting with pale green flowers. Cylindrical Callery pears shyly show their snowy petals. A few magnolias offer cream and purple blooms to the sky.

It’s an appropriate welcome for Arbor Day, marked in Massachusetts and in most states on the last Friday of April.

Proposed in 1872 by Nebraska newspaper journalist and editor J. Sterling Morton as a way to promote tree planting to create wind breaks, shade, fuel and building materials for the vast Nebraska Territory, Arbor Day soon caught on across the U.S. By 1885, it had become a legal holiday in Nebraska—the same year that Massachusetts first observed the tree planting celebration.

Worcester’s First Arbor Day Shadowed by Deforestation

Worcester marked the Commonwealth’s first Arbor Day on April 30, 1885, by planting nearly 500 trees, thanks largely to the efforts of the Worcester Grange: 413 shade trees (mostly maples), and 80 fruit trees and ornamentals, to be precise.

Standing on a stage bedecked with flowers and potted plants in Horticultural Hall, before a canvas inscribed “Our first Arbor Day—may it take as firm and lasting a hold on the hearts of the people as the trees take root in the soil,” State Grange Master James Draper urged an enthusiastic audience to plant trees. Draper’s concerns about dwindling timber resources and deforestation around Worcester were echoed by Stephen Salisbury III, a member of the city’s Parks Commission.

“It is a matter of common knowledge . . . that the timberlands of the country were disappearing,” reported the next day’s Worcester Daily Spy. “Something more than Arbor Day was needed to prevent utter desolation in New England. Those who participated in its observance, however, would always be honored and their service would be appreciated.”

19th Century Forests Depleted by Centuries of Waste

Deforestation in Massachusetts—the result of centuries of wasteful timber harvesting for fuel, potash and building materials, as well as clear cutting for farmland—had become a serious problem by the mid-19th century. Writing in 1846, botanist George B. Emerson warned that the Commonwealth’s wood-based industries, such as ship building and furniture manufacturing, had so depleted native forests that the state was rapidly becoming depending on timber imported from Maine and New York.

In Massachusetts, deforestation peaked about 1860, when roughly two-thirds of the state was open land, compared to one-tenth in 1800; many Central Massachusetts hill towns had cleared more than 75 percent of upland area by midcentury.

Arbor Day was one step in a long process of reversing that trend. Today, Massachusetts in one of the most forested states in the U.S., with nearly 71 percent tree cover, compared to a national average of 34 percent. According to David Nowak of the U.S. Forest Service, there are about 273 million trees in Massachusetts, moderating climate, stabilizing soil, controlling storm run-off, improving air quality, sheltering animals and beautifying our world.

Urban Tree Canopy Threatened by Development

But that green canopy is once again in jeopardy. Here as throughout the country, development is chipping away at urban forests, replacing trees with buildings and impervious surfaces, such as roads and parking lots.

Nationally, according to Nowak, 17 out of 20 major cities have experienced a significant decline in tree cover during the first decade of the new millennium. On average, we’re losing 4 million trees annually.

It’s a trend we ignore at our peril. Just as deforestation surrounding Worcester in the mid-19th century caused observable changes in climate and growing conditions, so a loss of trees as we continue to expand cities and suburbs will degrade our natural environment.

This past year, Worcester intensified planting to help offset the many trees lost to the Asian Longhorned Beetle infestation. Our streets are lined with young saplings, still taking root after the cold, harsh winter. It will be decades before they shade streets like their aging sylvan neighbors. On this Arbor Day, our 128th, their future, and our city’s, is in our hands.

Evelyn Herwitz is the author of  Trees at Risk: Reclaiming an Urban Forest and blogs about ALB prevention and tree stewardship at treesatrisk.com. She predicted the 2008 Asian Longhorned Beetle infestation of Worcester, Mass., in her book, published by Chandler House Press in 2001.

Comments

  1. LYNN PESCARO says:

    Ms. Herwitz,
    I am a writer for The Scarlet, Clark University’s student newspaper. I am doing a series of articles on the dying trees on campus (most recently, we just chopped down a spectacular European Copper Beech tree). I read that you taught at Clark and thought this subject would interest you. There are several trees in danger of dying soon. I also want to focus on replanting. Could I speak with you at your earliest convenience? My email is lpescaro@clarku.edu.
    Thank you,
    Lynn Marie Pescaro (Class of 2017)

  2. Evelyn Herwitz says:

    Thanks for contacting me, Lynn. Sent you an email, and I hope we can speak soon.

Speak Your Mind

*