April 22 marked the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. It was an especially fitting day to think about the larger world and environment as most of us have become more acquainted with our lives at home and away from others during the Covid 19 Pandemic.
At our home we did talk about Earth Day though did not do anything special to mark the occasion other than enjoy the outdoors on what has become a nearly daily family walk. It is fun to watch neighborhood lawns green up, buds form on the trees and bushes, and see the first flowers of the season bloom. On a larger scale, the number of people worldwide sheltering in place has had an immediate effect on the environment. Air pollution is down in many cities and regions where the issue is particularly prevalent. Wildlife has taken notice of fewer people outdoors and on the streets. Animals have been sighted venturing into cities and towns. Shut down parks and shores are seeing more activity from animals too.
Fort Robinson State Park is one place I often think of during April. My memories relate both to Earth Day and Arbor Day. The latter was April 24 this year and originated in Nebraska. I camped at Fort Rob almost every year in early April for just over two decades with Boy Scout Troop 344, first as a youth then as an adult leader. Our Alliance group was part of a long-term process to reforest the area burned there by a July 1989 wildfire. Boy Scouts planted hundreds of thousands of Ponderosa pine seedlings on the ridges and valleys at Fort Robinson.
The annual tree plant was always a few weeks before Earth Day and Arbor Day yet close enough that the activity served to mark both days. As a boy it was difficult to grasp the impact of what we were doing for the environment through the long view of the organizers. It was disconcerting as we would return to some of the areas several years later. Some trees died the first summer and others had grown a couple years only to become a tasty snack for porcupines. However, a fair percentage of the small evergreens took hold and grew bigger every year.
As youth we took the task seriously. Planting instructions evolved a bit after the first year when we dug holes with regular garden shovels putting bowls or dirt around each tree and paced out spacing in rows. Soon our scoutmaster fabricated real tree spades for us and the process became easier. The heavy steel blades punched a slit more than a foot deep in the ground that could easily be closed around the tree’s roots. We planted where trees had stood before and selected other locations carefully. Keep away from game trails and rocky areas for instance. We made sure the tap root pointed straight down and made sure to never put more than one tree per hole.
Camping is always a great way to enjoy nature and the environment. Looking back though, spring in northwest Nebraska was not always the best time to do it. Once as a youth and once as an adult blizzards kept our troop indoors and prevented planting those years. We always tried to follow the Scout motto and be prepared as it was common to plant with snow on the ground, or in the wind and/or rain. At least precipitation early meant the infant trees would have a good head start.
The Fort Robinson staff was always happy to host the Scouts and we enjoyed the wide open expanse of the park with its storied history. I went on my first tree plant more than 30 years ago now. Back then the staff told us how our contribution would restore the landscape as a place we would be able to visit with our children. During the summer of 2019 I had an occasion to do just that. My wife and I were camping with our children, ages 6 and 8. On the scenic drive loop through Smiley Canyon I pointed out some pines I had helped plant a generation ago.
Not every activity meant to help the environment leaves such lasting evidence. Think about small ways to make a difference. Earth Day and Arbor Day are great reminders, yet any time works to conduct a neighborhood or highway cleanup or plant a few trees.