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Remarks by John Rosenow
Arbor Day Foundation Founder & Chief Executive

at the
40th Anniversary Arbor Day Awards Ceremonies
April 28, 2012

In 1972, we celebrated Arbor Day’s centennial and launched the Arbor Day Foundation. That spring, the first Arbor Day Awards were presented on the east portico of Arbor Lodge.

A lot has happened in the tree-planting world in the four decades since—both extraordinary accomplishments, and trends best reversed.

Forty years ago, the management of America’s urban forest was haphazard or nonexistent. Many well-intentioned tree planting projects failed because cities did not have systems in place for the trees’ ongoing care.

In 1976, the Arbor Day Foundation, U.S. Forest Service and National Association of State Foresters launched Tree City USA: urban forestry management standards were set, professional assistance and educational support provided, successes celebrated.

During the first year, 42 communities earned Tree City USA designation.

In the following years, town after town, city after city, have started citizen tree boards and hired city foresters. Thousands of tree-care ordinances have been passed, sustainable municipal tree-management programs funded, Arbor Days observed.

Today there are more than 3,500 Tree City USAs, where 140 million Americans call home.

Forty years later, in our nation’s cities, rather than being the exception, effective community forestry management is the expectation… a shared accomplishment of which we can all be proud.

During the mid-1960s and early 70s, air pollution in our cities darkened the skies and sickened our people. Rivers were a dumping ground for chemicals and toxic pollutants. The Cuyahoga River actually caught on fire.

Under Democratic administrations in the 60s, and Republican administrations in the 70s, these challenges were constructively addressed. The Environmental Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act became laws of the land. Our nation’s magnificent systems of national forests, national parks and national wildlife refuges were nurtured and expanded. The air is now cleaner to breathe, water is safer to drink, endangered species have been brought back from the brink.

For much of the 20th century, there was a prevailing sentiment that conservation was a nonpartisan issue. Stewart Udall was Secretary of the Interior for eight years during the 60s. Udall was a leader in the modern environmental movement, an early advocate of the Arbor Day Foundation and the recipient of the J. Sterling Morton Award. He was as fond of quoting Republican Teddy Roosevelt as Democrat Franklin Roosevelt. Conservation is for everyone, he said, for many, the spirit of the times.

It’s not as though politics weren’t divisive in Udall’s day. Enormous progress in protecting the environment was achieved in the midst of bitter debate over civil rights and war.

Today, unfortunately, conservation is less likely to be seen as what it is—a way to create jobs, to improve human health, to keep air and water clean for our children and grandchildren, to mitigate the threat of climate change… a way to ensure a better future for all. All too often, issues relating to natural resource management and environmental improvement are just one more way to demonize an opponent. It need not be that way. That’s a trend best reversed.

The past forty years have demonstrated that conservation can bring people together for the common good. This positive spirit is the heart and soul of the magnificent work of Arbor Day Award winners. Their attitude and their effectiveness inspire us all; they show us the way.

As I visit with just about any citizen tree-planter or conservation professional, if I probe a bit they usually recall memories of rewarding childhood connections with nature. It’s not intellectual stuff that they remember. It’s things like floating sticks down a woodland steam, climbing neighborhood trees, delighting in seeing a frog or a praying mantis up close, jumping in piles of leaves, chasing fireflies on a warm summer evening.

Over the last 40 years, children’s lives have changed profoundly. Children are increasingly disconnected from nature, often completely. Screen time has replaced time connecting with the real world of nature.

Today we are in the early stages of a movement to reconnect children with nature that is even more fundamentally important than the urban forestry movement that began 40 years ago. But this time we don’t have 40 years. The truth is, if we don’t inspire a love of nature in people when they are children, we probably never will. Rapid progress is needed to connect children with nature—before we lose a whole generation, and while adults are still around who personally know the value of early nature experiences.

Now is the time to develop the next generation of environmental stewards.

This is a movement that will be decisive for the future of conservation—a movement to again make enriching nature connections part of children’s daily lives.

The Arbor Day Foundation, Dimensions Educational Research Foundation, and many others are helping to drive that movement through programs such as Nature Explore.

Today’s children are no longer experiencing the free-range childhoods that many of us enjoyed, roaming out most days into nearby nature. Nature Explore Classrooms are examples of the future we must will into being, bringing nature-rich spaces to where children now spend their days--in child care centers and elementary schools, and in neighborhood parks. These are places where children climb safe little tree houses, create works of art using pine cones and seeds and acorns, make beautiful music on wooden instruments, pile branches and natural blocks cut from trees, tunnel through wood chips, tend flower gardens, grow their own vegetables to eat.

In such spaces, with well-informed teachers and supportive parents, we can again grow foresters and arborists, tree-planters and wildlife biologists, conservation advocates and naturalists—caring citizens, committed professionals, and inspiring leaders like the Arbor Day Award winners we honor.

In the years ahead, our shared opportunity is to make it so that children having nature-filled lives moves from being the exception to being the expectation. We did it, together, with urban forestry. We can do it again on behalf of today’s children, and for all of the conservation work that is so vital for future generations.

Arbor Day founder J. Sterling Morton summed up the spirit and commitment of our Arbor Day Award winners: “Other holidays repose upon the past; Arbor Day proposes for the future.”

Thank you for the future you propose through your inspiring work.