Born in southern Colorado, I spent much of my childhood in South Dakota, living where the Black Hills met the prairie. When it came to trees, the ethos was Trees Are Good — Absence of Trees is Bad.
One Arbor Day we pupils at Canyon Lake Elementary School in Rapid City were marched out on the front lawn to watch a tree-planting. As best I can tell from Google Maps, that tree is still there, although its top looks a little drought-damaged.
Two hours south of Rapid City is Chadron, Nebraska, gateway to the Nebraska National Forest, “the largest hand-planted forest in the U.S.” Not-coincidentally, the first Arbor Day in America was held in Nebraska and marked by massive tree-plantings throughout that state.
President Theodore Roosevelt thought that Arbor Day was a splendid idea and issued a national proclamation to that effect in 1907.
Trees Are Good, right? Or as the bumper sticker has it, “Trees Are The Answer.“
Yet even in Nebraska, not everyone thinks so.
Chris Helzer, who is the Nature Conservancy’s director of science in Nebraska, speaks out against the Trees Are Good attitude beyond Arbor Day, when it affects prairie ecologies, in a blog post titled “The Darker Side of Tree Planting in the Great Plains.”
Euro-American cultural attitudes, once again, collided with ecological realities, he writes,
In 1907, a combination of those [western Nebraska] tree plantations was designated as the Nebraska National Forest, something many Nebraskans were and are proud of. I’ve always seen that whole process as a kind of sad appeal for respect (‘See, we DO have forests in Nebraska!’) It’s like an accomplished and popular actor, musician, and philanthropist feeling inferior their whole life because they’re not good at basketball – and repeatedly (and unsuccessfully) trying out for teams. . . .
We have a lot of work to do if we’re going to get the public to support prairie conservation. Tree planting isn’t the problem, and neither are the people and organizations who advocate for it. Trees are very nice. Some of my best friends have trees.
The problem is that tree planting is linked to an unsavory and unfortunate legacy in the Great Plains that still colors perceptions today. We need to separate the reasonable practice of planting a tree for shade, shelter, or fruit from the concept that white Europeans have a God-given right and duty to convert barren prairie wastelands into neat rows of corn and trees. I’m sure most people aren’t consciously making that connection as they dig a hole for their new apple tree seedling, but that doesn’t mean the cultural influence isn’t lurking in the background.
He makes a good argument: healthy prairie ecosystems are wonderfully complex, and yes, they do store CO2, if that is on your mind. We could let prairie be prairie without “improving” it — although even Helzer admits that shelterbelts are OK around farmsteads.