“He that plants trees loves others beside himself.”
Arbor Day was established as a tree-planting holiday in 1872. The first Arbor Day was celebrated in glorious fashion when more than a million trees were planted in Nebraska. Today, all 50 states, including North Carolina, and numerous countries around the globe recognize Arbor Day and its celebration of the planting, upkeep and preservation of trees. The most common date for state Arbor Day observances is the last Friday in April, and several U.S. presidents have proclaimed a national Arbor Day on that date. However, several states observe Arbor Day at other times to coincide with the best tree-planting weather.
In North Carolina, Arbor Day is observed the first Friday following March 15 and is an opportunity for our state to join in building awareness about the benefits of trees and to empower communities, organizations and schools to plant trees, care for trees and participate in urban forestry programs. This awareness, engagement and action are becoming more important than ever.
Each year, North Carolina is losing around 4,510 acres of urban tree canopy cover. What is urban tree canopy cover? Think of it as a blanket or the cover a parent might pull over a sleeping child in the night. Urban tree canopy is the layer of tree leaves, branches, and stems that provide tree coverage of the ground when viewed from above. Urban tree canopy cover in North Carolina is an estimated 54%. The national average is about 39%. While North Carolina ranks in the top 10 states in the country for urban canopy cover, the estimated percentage of urban land in North Carolina grew from 9.5% in 2010 to 11.5% in 2020. Planting trees and responsible urban forest management in North Carolina are critical for keeping our state on the path to sustainable forest resources and realizing the benefits trees and forests provide.
Today, many communities are planting trees to become more sustainable and livable. Improving and sustaining urban tree canopy has substantial benefits. Trees clean our air, filter our water and provide essential wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities. Trees add value to our homes, act as natural shields that block cold and damaging winds and help regulate temperatures in our neighborhoods. Trees reduce stormwater runoff and protect against erosion. Forests are the dominant land use in North Carolina, and the forest industry in our state is a robust economic engine ensuring jobs for thousands of our citizens. Each one of us can plant and care for trees, ensuring a better quality of life for future generations.
We are fortunate in North Carolina to have state forestry programs that promote and protect forest resources by supporting communities and landowners with site preparation, tree-planting and forest improvement. North Carolina’s flagship tree-planting program since 1977 has been our Forest Development Program (FDP). The Forest Development Program is managed by the N.C. Forest Service as a cost share assistance program for landowners. This program is a partnership between our forest industry and the N.C. Forest Service. In FY19-20, 12.98 million tree seedlings or 21,286 acres were planted in North Carolina because of this program. The Urban & Community Forestry (U&CF) grant program is also managed by the N.C. Forest Service and provides cost share assistance to North Carolina governments, public educational institutions and organizations for urban and community forestry projects located within the boundaries of a North Carolina incorporated municipality. A 2019 Urban and Community Forestry grant assisted the Hemlock Restoration Initiative (HRI) with treating more than 1,525 hemlocks with systemic insecticides. That’s five years of protection for these trees, and according to HRI, an estimated 503 tons of carbon dioxide sequestered at the time of treatment and another 14.3 tons of carbon dioxide stored each year due to continued survival of these trees. In 2021, Urban and Community Forestry grant funding assisted the Town of Davidson with conducting a tree inventory of street trees.
The N.C. Forest Service also administers several national recognition programs under the Arbor Day Foundation (ADF) umbrella. The N.C. Forest Service Urban and Community Forestry program oversees the application and award process for Tree City USA, Tree Campus Higher Education, and Tree Line USA. The Tree City USA program provides a framework for building an urban forestry program within a community and working toward sustainable and proactive management of a community’s tree resources. The Tree Campus Higher Education program supports effective tree management at two- and four-year accredited colleges and universities, encouraging best tree management practices on campuses and engaging the student population in the stewardship of campus tree resources. The Tree Line USA program recognizes best practices in public and private utility arboriculture, demonstrating how trees and utilities can coexist for the benefit of communities and citizens. These programs are similar in that applicants are required to meet certain standards to achieve and maintain designation as a Tree City USA, a Tree Campus Higher Education, and a Tree Line USA. One common requirement between each designation is that applicants must hold annual Arbor Day celebrations, engaging communities in the planting, upkeep and preservation of trees. In 2020, 83 North Carolina communities earned a Tree City USA designation. Twelve campuses earned a Tree Campus Higher Education designation. Five utilities earned Tree Line USA designations for 2021. Currently, the City of Rocky Mount holds the Tree City USA designation and is also home to a Tree Campus Higher Education and a Tree Line USA. North Carolina has several communities that hold at least two of the three designations.
Without a doubt, ensuring the sustainable management of North Carolina’s forests is critical for our economy and future generations. Just as the work being done in our communities to improve, manage and preserve urban forests is critical to our success. Think of it as that blanket or cover a parent might pull over a sleeping child in the night … Arbor Day and every day. As Thomas Fuller once said, “He that plants trees loves others beside himself.”