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Photo: Trees That Count
Photo: Trees That Count

ScienceJune 3, 2017

Remember Arbor Day? It’s this weekend – and deserves to be a bigger deal

Photo: Trees That Count
Photo: Trees That Count

From optimistic beginnings in 1890, Arbor Day has fallen into semi-obscurity around the country. But there’s a very good reason why New Zealand needs this day, and more native trees, says Trees That Count ambassador Joris De Bres.

So, what are you doing for Arbor Day?

Yes, Arbor Day. In case the day dedicated to planting and nurturing trees had fallen off your radar, and before you call on Professor Google: Arbor Day is celebrated in New Zealand on June 5.

This year Queen Lizzie will steal the spotlight somewhat, given that Queen’s Birthday falls on the same day. But Arbor Day has already largely slipped from the national consciousness – at a time when we need it more than ever. Which is why recently established charity Trees That Count is aiming to make this Arbor Day a record-breaking one.

Arbor Day: a potted history

America ran with the idea first. On April 10, 1872, Nebraskans planted more than one million trees on the state’s desolate plains.

Keen Kiwis began petitioning their councils for a local equivalent, and in 1890, Greytown got there first. On a July day, children from Greytown School, residents and dignitaries planted 153 trees at the southern end of the town. Shops were closed, a holiday was declared, a band played and flags flew. According to the Evening Post, a fine time was had by all.

Photo: Trees That Count

Twelve years later, on July 17, a South Island-based writer from the New Zealand Tablet took issue with how the initiative had been rolled out across the country:

“One who has arboricultural taste, and, therefore, desires to see his foresight rewarded with fruition, does not plant trees when snow and sleet are on the ground. Moreover, to generate national enthusiasm in the planting of trees it is necessary that some ceremony should be observed, and that the young should take part in it. Few parents would permit their children to assemble and stand for hours in a bleak and exposed locality, condemned to endure the bitter July blasts, and the not less grievous infliction of windy speeches. As a matter of fact, a highly meritorious event which should recur annually is doomed to failure because of a stubborn and futile attempt to fly in the face of nature by selecting the one day for the whole of the Colony. Nature ridicules such efforts, and eventually resists them by displaying her most bitter moods.”

Well, thank heavens the doomed failure never came to pass. The day was still going strong in 1940, when 500 trees (mostly kauri, totara, rimu and puriri) were planted in the Auckland Domain. As well as featuring the delightful slogan “Say it with trees” – which really should become our national motto – the Auckland Star article recorded the rather lovely speech of one official. “Trees, he said, asked for nothing at all. They gave all to those who heeded them and tree lovers recognised that each type had its own peculiar individuality.”

Since 1977, New Zealand has celebrated Arbor Day on June 5. But despite the efforts of some determined individuals, conservation groups and a few councils, the day now slips by largely unmarked.

Trees That Count, a conservation movement which aims to inspire New Zealanders to plant 4.7 million native trees in 2017 (that’s one tree planted for every person), is planning to change that.

Photo: Trees That Count

Why do we need to go large on planting?

Climate change is an ever-pressing concern. New Zealand needs to up its game in order to deliver on our Paris Agreement commitments. Rather than planning to buy vast numbers of foreign carbon credits to offset our emissions, there’s a far more simple answer to that part of the equation:


Why native trees? First, in essence, they know how to live in New Zealand. They’ve evolved to suit local conditions and will thrive with lower levels of management.

Native trees are wonderful vacuum cleaners. They absorb carbon from the atmosphere, reducing the negative impact of greenhouse gases on our climate; all trees over a certain height sequester carbon, but natives aren’t usually felled after a few decades as radiata pine trees are. They’re also a valuable part of our ecosystem, providing homes for native birds and insects, stabilising marginal land and reducing soil and rainwater run-off, and protecting waterways.

About now, I imagine some of you are thinking, “But aren’t all those wonderful local conservation groups planting enough native trees already?” Unfortunately not.

In his 2016 paper Our Forest Future: Towards a National Forestry Future for New Zealand Dr David Hall pointed out New Zealand is trending toward net deforestation:

  • According to Ministry for the Environment, our rate of forest removals since 2008 has been greater than our rate of forest planting, averaging around 8,500 hectares per year.
  • Global Forest Watch puts our net loss of tree cover between 2001–2014 at 139,793 hectares, more than four-fifths of the size of Stewart Island.
  • The 2015 Environment Aotearoa report, using land cover satellite imagery, found that between 1996 and 2014 we lost more than 10,000 hectares of native forest and regenerating forest.

And it seems we haven’t learned much from history either. Back to the New Zealand Tablet, this time reporting on Arbor Day 1903:

“It was a Government holiday, and here and there small groups of teachers and taught set rooted saplings, with much ado, into holes in the ground and left them to their fate… And for the rest axe and fire-stick and whirling saw are eating our forests up. Our timber export is increasing by some £60,000 a year; the fast-increasing demand in England, America, etc., for wood-pulp for paper-making is tolerably sure, in the near future, to hasten the devouring of our forests; and thus, while we are planting by the rood, we are destroying by the square mile.”

Left: Trees The Count ambassador Joris de Bres at a tree planting

What to plant and why we should count

Launched in November 2016, Trees That Count aims to keep a live count of the number of native trees being planted across the country from 2017 and to set a new target each year thereafter.

We want to build a clear picture of the great work being done nationwide, and to connect conservation groups and the wider public – so, for instance, people who own land but can’t afford trees can join forces with people who want to plant trees but have nowhere to plant them. Working together, every tree we plant will make a real difference.

Using Ministry for Primary Industries figures, Dr Hall has estimated that if 40 native trees were planted for every New Zealander, it would be roughly enough to negate New Zealand’s average annual increase in greenhouse gas emissions since 1990. Recording the number of native trees planted each year is a vital first step towards knowing how much progress we’re making, and what we can aim for.

Want to get involved? For Arbor Day and beyond, all trees planted and counted as part of Trees That Count must be:

  • Native – that is, indigenous to New Zealand (click here for a suggested list).
  • Species that have the potential to reach a minimum height of 5 metres at maturity.
  • “In addition” to nature – that is, deliberately planted and not counted through natural regeneration.
  • Planted with the intention of being maintained and protected until maturity.

Every day should be Arbor Day, really, and many organisations such as Forest and Bird, Project Crimson, Trees for Survival and Sustainable Coastlines do vital work all year round. But every cause needs a focal point, a flag to rally to and a day on which big progress is made – though hopefully without the “windy speeches” of 1902. Arbor Day could be ours, setting New Zealand on the path towards a net-zero greenhouse gas future.

So go on, plant your native tree (or three) on Arbor Day, and beyond. Or donate or gift a tree at Future generations will thank us for it.

Former race relations commissioner Joris De Bres is the chair of Project Crimson, which delivers the Trees That Count initiative in partnership with Pure Advantage and the Department of Conservation. Trees That Count is funded by the Tindall Foundation.

Pledge to plant a tree and register it on the Arbor Day campaign page, or support the campaign by donating (for $10) a tree that will be planted on your behalf.

Note: It’s vital potential planters are aware of the risks of myrtle rust, which has been found in Northland, Waikato and Taranaki. Myrtle rust can have serious consequences for various species of plants in the myrtle family, including New Zealand native plants such as pōhutukawa, ramarama, rata, rōhutu, mānuka, swamp maire and kānuka. Check here for updates if you’re planning to plant myrtaceous plants, and avoid planting them in affected regions.

The Spinoff’s science content is made possible thanks to the support of The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national institute devoted to scientific research.

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