The Arbor Day ethic is back in style

April 20, 1999|By Froma Harrop

NOT ONE but two environmental observances occur at the end of this month. They couldn't be more different. Earth Day looks at the big picture. Born in the '60s and celebrated on Thursday, Earth Day is about saving the whales, removing dams from the rivers, preserving entire mountain ranges. In sum, it's about protecting nature from man's imprint.

By contrast, Arbor Day promotes the Victorian creed that humans can improve upon the primeval world. Nebraska inaugurated the first Arbor Day in 1872: The state issued a proclamation urging settlers to cover the treeless prairies with saplings. Trees would make the stark prairie more hospitable to humans by providing them with shade, fruit, fuel and beauty.

Recycling ideas

Earth Day has eclipsed Arbor Day in recent years. Few calendars these days even note Arbor Day, which takes place on April 30. However, old concepts have a way of getting recycled. The burning environmental issue this year -- suburban sprawl -- concerns the human habitat.

It asks how the surroundings might be improved to better serve man. Suddenly, old-fashioned Arbor Day seems modern. And attention of our political leaders has moved away from saving the majestic Cinerama views of the uninhabited wilderness and toward restoring the old black-and-white stills of Main Street America. It makes some sense. Ordinary Americans may occasionally mourn the loss of a species of sturgeon, but the destruction of their walkable community hurts them on a daily basis.

Seeking nature

Every summer, millions of families pack up for a two-week vacation in a pristine wilderness. The beach, national park or simply the backwoods are kept that way through the diligent efforts of the U.S. Park Service, state park agencies and such environmental groups as the Sierra Club.

The families spend the other 96 percent of their year in their suburban-sprawl habitat, where they lose countless hours to traffic, and commute to barren strip malls and soulless office parks. There are no sidewalks, and no centralized place to which sidewalks might lead. Children must be driven everywhere, until they reach the age of licensing. Then the youngsters work 20 hours a week after school to support their wheels. Homework may suffer as a result, but to the sprawl-locked teen-ager, the vehicle is the key to adolescent freedom.

Recent efforts to address the suburban-sprawl problem -- led by such Democrats as Vice President Al Gore and such Republicans as New Jersey Gov. Christine Whitman -- are meant to address that 96 percent of American life. The anti-sprawl movement asserts that humans are social creatures meant to live in communities, where they may visit neighbors, schools or stores without driving. Motorized vehicles are not banned from this vision but put in their place. The landscape does not have to be taken over by highway lanes, ugly curb cuts and voluminous parking areas. Planting trees to make street life more pleasant for humans plays an important role in achieving these goals.

One kind of environmentalism really does not preclude the other. Indeed, they are properly connected. But some of the big-picture environmentalists seem frustrated that their concerns no longer dominate the front burner for such staunch allies as Mr. Gore.

It was significant that a group of major environmental groups recently criticized the vice president for not taking concrete measures to reduce pollutants that cause global warming. Philip E. Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, complained that "repeated promises have been broken." Are they feeling neglected?

The Earth Day people should expand their interests to embrace the Arbor Day ethic. Protecting important parcels of acreage from development is one of the crowning achievements of American environmentalism. However, celebrating human habitation, when done well, would update the mainstream environmental movement.

Ogling the Sierra Club calendar does little for the American family surrounded by the daily monumental ugliness of the sprawl landscape. An environmentalism that concerns itself with treeless strip malls can also work to protect the South American rain forest from uncontrolled burning. Indeed, the National Arbor Day Foundation ( is on to saving the rain forest. Many save-the-wilderness environmentalists can use a trip into town.

Froma Harrop is a Providence Journal editorial writer and columnist.

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