A question meriting even more attention than who stole Arbor Day is “Why?” Who would want to hijack a holiday? Half a century after the takeover, events have developed sufficiently for a reasonable guess.
The story started way back in 1854.
In 1854, a journalist named Julius Sterling Morton and his wife Caroline moved to the wind-swept territory of Nebraska. There were few trees to serve as windbreaks, and few trees to protect soil from erosion or crops from burning in the sun.
For several years, Morton editorialized on the benefits of trees and encouraged his fellow Nebraskans to plant trees. As part of his campaign, Morton proposed an Arbor Day.
In 1885, Nebraska declared Arbor Day a state holiday, and April 22 the date of annual observance. April offered ideal weather for planting trees, and the 22nd of April was J. Sterling Morton’s birthday. By that time, Morton had led the planning of more than 1 million trees.
Within the next 20 years, Arbor Day was celebrated in all states of the U.S., except Delaware. The Arbor Day concept also spread outside the U.S., to Japan, Europe, Canada, and Australia.
Enter Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin.
In 1969, Senator Gaylord Nelson saw the opportunity to capitalize on a populace spooked by environmental ruin. Rachel Carson’s widely read Silent Spring, published in 1962, lifted the veil that theretofore had hidden massive pollution caused by pesticides. In January of 1969, an oil well off the pristine coast of Santa Barbara, California, blew up, and hundreds of images of aquatic animals covered oil flooded the airwaves.
In the same year as the Santa Barbara oil spill, Senator Nelson started organizing nation-wide rallies to bring attention to what was happening to Mother Earth. The day he picked for the coordinated rallies was April 22, for the purported reason that young college students, who were expected to play a big role, would be on spring break. April 22 was also the original day for Arbor Day celebrations already established throughout the nation. (Critics of Earth Day point out that April 22 is also Vladimir Lenin’s birthday, but any connection between the environmental movement and abolition of private property shall be left for another day.)
Earth Day 1970, with its catchy slogan “Give Earth a Chance” and heavy promotion, was a success. An estimated 20 million people attended various rallies and festivities.
Meanwhile, Richard Nixon promoted environmental legislation.
President Richard M. Nixon embarked on a series of environmental legislation. He signed the National Environmental Policy Act (January 1970), creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (December 1970), Clean Air Act (December 1970), Marine Mammal Protection Act (October 1972), Endangered Species Act (December 1973).
As part of his environmental plan, Nixon signed two proclamations:
Proclamation 4042, dated April 2, 1971, designated the period of April 18 through April 24, 1971, as Earth Week.
Proclamation 4126, dated April 24, 1972, designated the last Friday of April 1972, April 28, as National Arbor Day.
These celebrations today continue, but at different levels.
Today, Arbor Day is still observed by avid supporters on the last Friday in April, as well as on several other dates in different states. The Arbor Day Foundation, a 501(c)(3) organization, claims more than 1 million members.
However, Earth Day, remains much more visible, and some have given it the mantle of fighting climate change.
The Earth Day Network (Earthday.org), a 501(c) corporation, whose mission is to “Broaden and diversify the environmental movement worldwide”, picked “Invest in our Planet” as the theme of Earth Day 2023. Its press release states,
Investing in a green economy is the only path to a healthy, prosperous, and equitable future. Human influence is unequivocally to blame for the warming of the planet and the sad truth is some forms of climate disruption will be felt for centuries to come. However, we must collectively push away from the dirty fossil fuel economy and old technologies of centuries past – and redirect attention to creating a 21st century economy that restores the health of our planet, protects our species, and provides opportunities for all.
On April 21, 2023, President Joe Biden issued A Proclamation on Earth Day, 2023.
On Earth Day, we celebrate the modern environmental movement that kicked off 53 years ago, when millions of Americans of every age and background first rallied together to change our laws and become better stewards of our planet …
This work has never been more urgent. Climate change is a clear and present danger — in the words of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, it is a “code red for humanity.
The last Presidential Proclamation helping to celebrate Arbor Day appears to be that of President George H.W. Bush in 1990.
It would have been nice if both celebrations remained popular.
Arbor Day and Earth Day occupy different spheres of influence. Arbor Day incentivizes individuals to develop personal awareness of the benefit of trees in absorbing carbon dioxide, combating soil erosion, protecting people and crops from sun overexposure, and adding beauty. Earth Day has the much broader objective of fixing the environment by any means necessary.
Senator Gaylord Nelson could have meant well when he chose to celebrate Earth Day on the same day as Arbor Day had been celebrated for more than 80 years – perhaps as a nod to J. Sterling Morton’s birthday.
But surely Senator Nelson must have considered the possibility that the massive publicity received by Earth Day would overshadow Arbor Day. Environmental action by any means necessary?
Pictured: Arbor Day celebration in New York City, 1908.