The seeds of tree appreciation are rooted in Michigan

Volunteer tree planting - lady digs hole while two girls stand with tree seedlings ready to plant

Tree-planting activities benefit the state’s wildlife, people, public lands, cities and towns

April 27, 2017

Other than the December holiday tree-trimming season, April is probably the one time of year when a great deal of special national attention is paid to trees and, more specifically, planting them.

The Arbor Day Foundation is maintaining an online countdown on its website to this Friday’s national commemoration of the one day each year we all can “Get together and celebrate the importance of trees.”

Starting with the efforts of J. Sterling Morton, a nature-loving Detroiter transplanted into Nebraska Territory in 1854, the roots of Arbor Day took hold as Morton led the charge to promote the importance of trees, first to pioneers, townspeople and schoolchildren, later to his state, and eventually, the nation.

On the first Arbor Day, Jan. 4, 1872, more than a million trees were estimated to have been planted in Nebraska. Arbor Day was proclaimed a legal holiday in Nebraska in 1885 and was originally celebrated on Morton’s April 22 birthday.

Today, National Arbor Day is always celebrated on the last Friday in April, but many states observe Arbor Day on different dates throughout the year based on the best tree planting times in their area, according to the foundation.

Michigan celebrates Arbor Day on the last Friday in April.

The Arbor Day Foundation said its Tree City USA program has been greening up cities and towns across America since 1976. The program is a nationwide movement that provides the framework necessary for communities to manage and expand their public trees.

More than 3,400 communities have made the commitment to becoming a Tree City USA, including 111 cities and towns in Michigan in 2016. Two Michigan communities — Adrian and Royal Oak — have achieved the Tree City USA designation for 40 years. Michigan ranks eighth nationally in the number of communities certified.

“These communities have achieved the Tree City USA designation by meeting four core standards of the program: maintaining a tree board or department, having a community tree ordinance, spending at least $2 per capita on urban forestry and celebrating Arbor Day,” said Michigan Department of Natural Resources Urban Forestry Coordinator Kevin Sayers.

group of kids planting tree outside of schoolNearly 1,000 second- and third-grade students from 20 pre-selected, mid-Michigan schools will attend the State Arbor Day Celebration Friday, April 28, at Lansing’s Potter Park Zoo.

Students from schools selected to attend the celebration will have an opportunity to learn during a series of hands-on activity stations that focus on trees, water, wildlife and related ecosystems.

A noon-time ceremony will include a presentation of awards and planting of the state Arbor Day tree. Numerous sponsoring organizations are involved in making the event a success.

“Arbor Day is the designated day for celebrating the importance of trees and forests,” Sayers said. “Events like this will help raise awareness about the role trees play in our lives, in our communities and in the environment.”

While there may be just one day a year specifically set aside to celebrate trees, the importance of trees is something many organizations focus on year-round.

A good number of these organizations spearhead volunteer efforts, many in partnership with the DNR, to plant trees for the benefit of Michigan’s wildlife and communities around the state.

Earlier this month, the DNR and Arbor Day Foundation partnered to give away 1,000 trees in the City of Detroit to help beautify neighborhoods and restore tree canopy lost to the emerald ash borer, an invasive and destructive insect.

In August, Michigan United Conservation Clubs – as part of On the Ground, MUCC’s volunteer fish and wildlife habitat improvement program – brought together 21 volunteers to plant 230 trees at the DNR’s Garden Grade GEMS (Grouse Enhanced Management Site) in Delta County in the Upper Peninsula.

The site totals approximately 7,000 acres, dominated by aspen, northeast of Garden and south of Cooks.

Trees and shrubs planted included ninebark, American mountain ash, American hazelnut and highbush cranberry.

group of volunteers who planted trees“Volunteers planted along logging roadways to enhance 20 acres of grouse habitat in a recently forested stand to promote aspen regeneration,” said Sarah Topp, wildlife volunteer coordinator for MUCC. “Grouse were spotted by a few lucky volunteers along the way; this site will be a thriving habitat for the gamebird in the next five to 10 years of growth.”

Topp added that, although the targeted species for this project was grouse, other wildlife such as white-tailed deer, snowshoe hare, American woodcock, black bear, rabbits and more will benefit from the trees and shrubs by providing food and cover.

Cody Norton, a DNR wildlife biologist at the Shingleton field office in Alger County, said
MUCC volunteers planted shrubs along two hunter walking trails in the northern part of the GEMS.

“We worked with Ralph Lundquist of Wildlife Unlimited of Delta County to get funding for the shrubs and Sarah Topp of MUCC to organize the On-The-Ground event,” Norton said. “We had 21 volunteers that included local hunters, members of MUCC, U.P. Whitetails and Ruffed Grouse Society, DNR Forest Resources Division staff, and family members of DNR Wildlife Division staff.”

More recently, on March 25, a group of nearly two dozen On the Ground volunteers planted 800 crabapple trees at Middleville State Game Area in Barry County.

In the wildlife opening where the trees were planted, there have been problems with vehicles tearing up the area. The trees not only will provide browse for the area’s deer and wild turkey, but also will deter vehicles from driving through the opening.

"These wildlife habitat improvement events help the DNR plant trees and shrubs essential to quality wildlife habitat throughout the state of Michigan,” Topp said. “Volunteers dedicate a full or half day to tackle a project planting 500-1,000 trees on public lands that the DNR just doesn't have the time or staff for. This program is crucial to connecting the local hunters, trappers and anglers with wildlife conservation on our public lands."

More On the Ground volunteer opportunities are scheduled in the coming months.

volunteers repot shrubs for turkey habitat projectAside from the MUCC, several other groups have helped the DNR by planting wildlife-friendly trees and shrubs, including the National Wild Turkey Federation, Pheasants Forever, the Ruffed Grouse Society and the Drummond Island Conservation Club.

In the fall of 2015, volunteers from two local National Wild Turkey Federation groups joined DNR staff at the Holly Wildlife Area in Oakland County to plant crabapple trees in an area the volunteers had helped to clear of black locust, brush and other invasive plants the previous spring.

“Crabapples provide winter food for wild turkeys, as well as songbirds, squirrels and deer,” said Holly Vaughn, DNR wildlife communications coordinator. “The smaller crabapple is easier to eat and persists longer into the winter than regular apples, which makes this fruit very valuable for wintering wildlife.

“Thanks to our partners, these trees should provide mast for wildlife for many years to come.”

Some organizations complete tree-planting projects with financial help from DNR grant programs.

For instance, Crawford and Oscoda counties are the beneficiaries of a DNR Wildlife Habitat Grant awarded to a group of organizations including the National Wild Turkey Federation, Ruffed Grouse Society and Whitetails Unlimited.

More than 500 crabapple, hawthorn, service berry and burr oak trees, along with more than 178 acres of food plots, were planted in the summer of 2016.

“Great year-round food sources,” said Katie Keen, DNR wildlife communications coordinator. “In addition, two miles of hunter walking trail were established and 200 apple trees were pruned.”

Volunteer tree-planting efforts have also played a role in one of Michigan’s greatest conservation success stories – the recovery from the brink of extinction of the Kirtland’s warbler.

Volunteers plant 2-3 acres of jack pines every year to further the recovery of the Kirtland's warbler by creating habitat.The Kirtland’s Warbler Alliance and Huron Pines, in partnership with the DNR, Saving Birds Thru Habitat and Fairmont Santrol, sponsor an annual Jack Pine Planting Day to help create Kirtland’s warbler habitat.

“Through the Jack Pines Planting Day event we’ve planted 2 acres of Kirtland’s warbler habitat the last two years – something around 2,500 trees each time,” said Abigail Ertel, community program leader for Huron Pines, a nonprofit organization that helps protect the Great Lakes by conserving the forests, lakes and streams of northeast Michigan. “This year we’re hoping to up that to 3 acres and approximately 3,750 trees.”

The 2017 Jack Pine Planting Day, taking place May 19 in Grayling, will be part of the Huron Pines AmeriCorps Russ Mawby Signature Service Project. AmeriCorps members and volunteers from across northeast Michigan will gather to tackle conservation and community-based service projects.

“There’s nothing quite as tangible and being out on public lands, getting your hands dirty, meeting new people or reconnecting with old friends while actively participating in an important conservation program, which normally wouldn’t be an option for the general public,” Ertel said.

Those interested in participating can register online for the service project or contact Huron Pines at 989-448-2293.

In the spirit of Arbor Day, though often undertaken at other times during the year, many volunteer tree-planting projects aim to bring the benefits of trees to Michigan’s non-wildlife residents — people in communities around the state.

The DNR offers financial assistance with these tree-planting efforts by administering programs like federally funded Community Forestry Grants and DTE Energy Foundation Tree Planting Grants, which help local units of government, schools and nonprofit organizations plant and manage trees in their communities.

This year, the DTE Tree Planting grant application period will begin on Arbor Day. Application materials are available online at

Looking for volunteer opportunities to pitch in and help plant some trees in your community? Check with your local government office or organizations such as ReLeaf Michigan, The Greening of Detroit, the Grand Rapids Urban Forest Project and others around the state.

For more information on National Arbor Day, visit the Arbor Day Foundation’s website at

Check out previous Showcasing the DNR stories and subscribe to upcoming articles.

Note to editors: Contact: Kevin Sayers, 517-284-5898 or John Pepin, 906-226-1352. Accompanying photos are available below for download and media use. Suggested captions follow. Credit: Michigan Department of Natural Resources, unless otherwise noted.

Arbor: Students from Pattengill Middle Years School in Lansing helped plant trees at the school as part of the city’s Arbor Day celebration in 2016. (Photo courtesy of the City of Lansing).

Crabapple: In March, a group of 20 volunteers planted 800 crabapple trees at Barry County’s Middleville State Game Area as part of Michigan United Conservation Clubs’ On the Ground habitat-improvement program. (Photo courtesy of Michigan United Conservation Clubs).

Crew: The Michigan United Conservation Clubs On the Ground tree and shrub planting crew on the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ Garden Grade GEMS (Grouse Enhanced Management Site) in Delta County. (Photo courtesy of Michigan United Conservation Clubs)

Drummond: During a tree and shrub planting day at the Drummond Island Grouse Enhanced Management Site (GEMS) in Chippewa County, volunteers including local elementary school students helped improve wildlife habitat on the island.

Planting: Volunteers plant 2-3 acres of jack pines every year as part of an annual effort to further the recovery of the Kirtland’s warbler by creating the habitat the rare songbird needs. (Photo courtesy of Huron Pines).

Repotting: In a turkey habitat improvement project aided by volunteers from the National Wild Turkey Federation, crabapple trees were repotted and cared for at a DNR facility in Clinton County for replanting in northern Michigan.

Seedling: As part of an annual jack pine planting day, volunteers plant thousands of seedlings to create Kirtland’s warbler habitat. (Photo courtesy of William Rapai of the Kirtland’s Warbler Alliance).

Sign: A sign marks a Monarch Waystation.