Wildfires, deadly pests, extreme seasons: it isn’t easy living life as a tree in Nebraska.
As the state prepares to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Arbor Day on April 29, factors threatening the health of Nebraska’s trees make the holiday’s mission as important as ever, experts from the Nebraska Forest Service and Arbor Day Foundation said.
Arbor Day was first introduced in 1872 by Nebraska newspaper editor J. Sterling Morton, according to the Arbor Day Foundation, and became an official state holiday in 1885.
Since then, the holiday has served as an occasion for Nebraska residents and agencies to plant trees across the state and raise awareness of the importance of healthy forests and urban trees, Arbor Lodge Coordinator Laura Steinman said.
“Arbor Day started as an idea to create an improved environment: beauty, shade, habitat for animals, fuel, food, windbreaks, prevent soil erosion, building materials,” she said. “We now know additional benefits of trees: providing oxygen and helping cleanse our air.”
The Arbor Day Foundation reported a total of 6,339 trees planted in Nebraska in 2020. Since the Nebraska-headquartered organization was founded 50 years ago, it has planted and distributed nearly 500 million trees worldwide.
The Nebraska Forest Service’s focus is on planting trees that will thrive where they’re planted, said Jack Hilgert, the organization’s conservation education coordinator. What thrives in the Missouri River Valley in the eastern part of the state may not do well in the more rugged landscape of the panhandle.
“What we like to say is that we always want to have the right tree in the right place at the right time,” Hilgert said.
With changes in Nebraska’s climate over the last 150 years, which trees do well in different areas has shifted in some cases, Hilgert said, due to differences in soil moisture content and rainfall patterns.
Instances of very heavy precipitation have increased 16% since 1895 in Nebraska, according to a 2014 study by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and soil moisture is projected to decrease by 5 to 10% by 2050. The severity of both floods and drought is also increasing, according to the study.
“As we see different changes in our weather and climate over time, some trees are going to be more successful in communities where they historically were not going to be as successful,” Hilgert said. “And some trees that used to be very successful in different parts of the state are no longer as successful.”
Another threat to Nebraska’s trees is the emerald ash borer. Infestations of the invasive insect have been popping up in communities across Nebraska since 2016, according to the forest service. Because of the pest, which can
spread quickly and is deadly to the species, the Nebraska Forest Service recommends no longer planting any native ash trees, Hilgert said.
“The Emerald Ash Borer is not found in all of our communities yet in Nebraska, but we believe that over the long term, it will kind of invade the state,” he said.
During periods of drought, like Nebraska is currently experiencing, the state is also seeing more severe wildfires. A recent fire near Arapahoe consumed nearly 35,000 acres of land in the span of around 24 hours and left a fire chief dead and others injured, according to a Lincoln Journal Star story.
Nebraska is also seeing a general decline in its urban canopy, or the trees located within urban areas, Hilgert said. As trees age and die, fewer are being replaced, especially on private property.
“Sometimes homeowners are worried about trees hurting their houses, or sometimes they just don’t have the economic ability to purchase and plant more trees on their properties,” he said.
Besides helping the climate by absorbing carbon and helping prevent erosion, trees can also provide benefits directly to humans, Hilgert said. A study in Australia found that exposure to trees resulted in better psychological health, and a classic 1984 study found that patients who had a view of one or more trees outside their hospital window recovered quicker and needed lower doses of pain medications.
“Arbor Day celebrations are great opportunities just to investigate more of why trees can help benefit us as people,” Hilgert said. “And why they’re so important to have in the places where people live and work.”
Communities across Nebraska will mark Arbor Day with different forestry-related events.
In Lincoln, representatives of the Lincoln Parks and Recreation Department and the Arbor Day Foundation will gather at Roper Park to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the holiday. The parks and recreation department also plans to plant 150 trees in city parks between April 22 and 29.
Besides city-led events, many organizations and businesses across the state also celebrate Arbor Day through activities like tree plantings, Steinman said.
Many communities also have different ways residents can get involved in community forestry throughout the year, Hilgert said. Many Nebraska communities are members of Tree City USA or have a tree board.
Even people who may live in an apartment or otherwise can’t plant a tree themselves can still advocate for community forestry and increasing the urban canopy around them, Hilgert said.
“You can also just get involved in your community to help support tree-planting efforts,” he said.
As Nebraska continues to face new challenges related to the state’s climate, different strategies will be needed to ensure the state’s forests and urban canopies can thrive, Hilgert said.
“We are going to have to change some of our practices,” he said. “That way we still have vibrant trees in wild landscapes and in human landscapes all across Nebraska.”