Pulp Magic

MAY 3, 2017

Meet the Man Behind the Trees

At the end of April we celebrated Arbor Day, but for the rest of the year we should celebrate the person who came up with the idea of replanting forests: J. Sterling Morton.

Morton was a collection of contradictions and accomplishments.  He was a campus radical expelled from the University of Michigan (they later gave him an honorary degree), a pioneer who helped settle the Nebraska Territory and then became its governor, a farmer who became Secretary of Agriculture and then championed forests.

Morton became fascinated with trees when he moved to Nebraska and acquired 160 acres of treeless farmland.  He was a frustrated farmer who noticed that the plowed soil tended to dry up and get blown away by the relentless winds that swept across the prairie. He decided to plant some trees to block the wind and that worked well.  Then he planted trees as flowering specimens.  Then he planted orchards and eventually Morton turned his barren property into what is now the Arbor Lodge State Arboretum.

Morton also valued trees for their utility. In 19th century America, trees provided building material for homes and heat for those homes in the winter.  They provided shade from the summer sun and fuel for light in the darkness.  Morton saw that the enormous usefulness of trees meant that the great primeval forests of the North America were being consumed rapidly and conversion to farmland threatened their disappearance altogether.

Belgium, Flanders, West Flanders, Brugge, Sunbeam lighting a patch of underbrush in forest

By the second half of the 19th century, an average of 13 square miles of forest were being cleared every day and by 1910 the area of forest land in the U.S. had declined to an estimated 754 million acres, or 34 percent of the total land area.

“The trees, the forests are essential to man’s health and life,” Morton wrote.  “When the last tree shall have been destroyed there will be no man left to mourn the improvidence and thoughtlessness of the forest-destroying race to which he belonged.”

In part because of Sterling’s relentless advocacy for tree replanting, the amount of forested land in the United States stabilized by the early 20th century and gradually expanded even while the population has more than tripled since then.

About one million trees were planted on the first Arbor Day in 1872.  Today, according to the USDA Forest Service, four million trees are planted every day in the United States. Proud to say, the wood and paper products industry is responsible for nearly half of these – an average of about 1.7 million trees daily.  And that doesn’t include the millions of seedlings that take root naturally.

And while it wasn’t a focus in Morton’s time, trees and forests sequester enormous amounts of greenhouse gases. Every ton of wood produced in a forest removes 1.47 tons of CO2 from the air and replaces it with 1.07 tons of oxygen.

“In all civilizations man has cut down and consumed,” Morton observed, “but seldom restored or replanted, the forests.”  Morton’s commitment to replanting trees is just as important today as it was in his time.

So while most people like to focus on the one day of planting trees that occurs in April, I think we should follow the example of May J. Sterling Morton and plant trees all throughout the year.