150 Years of Rooting for Trees

Rooting for Trees

The sight of a tire swing hanging from a huge tree tends to bring out the kid in all of us.

Or maybe you feel a twinge of nostalgia when you see a treehouse in someone’s yard, or a hammock gently swaying between a pair of shady trees on a hot summer day.

What are your fondest memories of trees? Do they go back to your childhood? For many of us, that’s the case.

Since April brings us both Earth Day (22nd) and Arbor Day (30th), we want to celebrate the importance of protecting our natural resources, especially trees because of all the benefits they provide.

Here in South Dakota, we are fortunate to have a rich history of productive farmland, rolling acres of ranches, scenic mountain peaks, national forests filled with Ponderosa pines and Black Hills spruce and world-famous habitat for wildlife like pheasants.


Our state’s farmers and ranchers are some of the best caretakers of our land and guardians of our globe when it comes to climate and the environment.

“Ag contributes a lot to the public good that many people don’t even know,” said Angela Ehlers, Executive Director of South Dakota’s Conservation District.

While raising crops and livestock, they must also manage soil health, protect trees, provide for pollinators and ensure water quality. Farmers worry about the weather and how it impacts their ability to farm productively and profitably for many more generations to come. Essentially, they celebrate Earth Day every day!


Driving around our state, you’ll see plenty of wide-open prairie. After all, it’s what makes our state special. Where you do see a cluster of trees, it’s often the location of a current or former farmstead. That’s because the trees were planted to form a protective border that surrounds the property’s home and other buildings.

A shelterbelt or windbreak does just what the name says. It provides shelter, breaking the wind. We all know how the winds can blow in South Dakota. Because winds are usually stronger out in open rural areas, we rely on trees to block the winter winds from the north and west, which can save up to 20% in energy costs.


Trees as windbreaks out in the country can slow the wind to help keep precious topsoil from blowing off fields. They also serve as a living snow fence by trapping snow so it doesn’t blow and drift across our roadways, leading to dangerous travel and costly removal.


In addition to giving livestock some shelter, such as when cows give birth to baby calves in the spring, these areas of trees also give wildlife a place to nest and raise their young. The windbreaks provide them with food and a safe route to seek out further food sources, as well as offering animals protective cover from predators and shelter from weather, especially the wind.


Many of our state’s older trees were planted as part of the Great Plains Shelterbelt that came about after the Dust Bowl of the early 1930s. That’s when several years of drought left the dry soil blowing away in severe dust storms.

To save moisture and protect our priceless topsoil across the highly productive Plains, President Franklin D. Roosevelt spearheaded an ambitious tree-planting campaign with the help of the U.S. Forest Service, who knew that planting rows of trees on the edges of farms would reduce wind velocity and save soil moisture.

From 1934 to 1942, more than 220 million trees were planted in over 30,000 shelterbelts, stretching out over 18,000 miles in a 100-mile-wide zone from the top of Texas all the way north to the Canadian border. This included 10- to 40-acre plots of trees and 3,200 miles of windbreaks, covering 44,000 acres, planted in 33 counties throughout the Great Plains States.

Many windbreaks, shelterbelts and farm woodlots from that project are still present today across our state’s eastern third. However, as these trees get closer to a century old, many are in need of restoration due to age, damage or destruction from storms, insects or disease. All across the state, farmers and ranchers care for existing trees and plant new ones as part of protective shelterbelts and windbreaks.

Farmers add new and renovate existing windbreaks and shelterbelts.


More than half (54%) of our state's population lives in a Tree City USA community. More than 2500 trees were planted in 2019. Out of 32 cities, four have been active communities for 40 years!

While we’ve heard the term “tree hugger” that is used for an environmentalist who takes things too far, we should all give trees a big hug because of their many benefits!

There is evidence that just looking at trees can reduce work stress and even speed up healing times for patients in hospitals!

And other studies have shown a reduction in minor crimes as well as domestic aggression and violence simply due to having trees in the environment!

Clearly, trees planted in urban areas are not just for visual appeal; they also offer advantages that benefit our entire environment in a variety of ways.


During the week of Arbor Day, post a picture of your favorite tree on social media with the hashtag #ArborDay and tag @arborday. They will plant a tree on your behalf…up to 100,000 trees total! One for EACH user on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook so share the love!


  • Shade pavement, cooling the area several degrees.
  • Shade homes and businesses from heat and protect from cold winter winds, reducing energy costs by up to 20%.
  • Lower surface and air temperatures by providing shade and releasing water vapor into the air through leaves.
  • Hold topsoil and residue in place to improve water quality and reduce soil.
  • Provide pollinator habitat as well as homes and food for birds, insects and wildlife, including some endangered species.
  • Absorb water from rain and runoff, filter it, and refill the underground water sources.
  • Mature trees help homes sell faster and for a higher value.

A “Time for Trees” initiative kicked off in March 2019 to plant 100 million trees by Arbor Day 2022, which is the 150th anniversary of Arbor Day. According to the Arbor Day Foundation, 31 % of the world’s land area is forest.


Earth Day is every April 22 while Arbor Day is always the last Friday in April, which is the 30th in 2021. This makes an ideal window of opportunity to educate yourself on the environment and how you can make a difference by making less of an impact.

For 44 years, South Dakota has held an Arbor Day essay contest with young authors in fifth and six grades sharing their personal connections with trees. “Many of them don’t just write about the general importance of trees but of their individual importance, usually with an emotional tie,” said Ehlers.

This year, a total of 893 entries were received and winners have just been announced. First place winner Brodie Boomsma of Doland wrote a poem; second place Mickayla Kavanah of Plankinton wrote about a fox; and third place Onassis Darnell of Carthage shared a descriptive essay about a beautiful ash tree. Read the entries here.

The state’s poster contest for 2021 drew over 600 entries from fifth graders all across the state. Obviously, narrowing down the young artists’ creations is quite a challenge for the South Dakota judges. The top 12 posters have just been chosen to be featured on the website and the top three receive cash prizes.

1st place (2020): Sienna Vera Weiman of Sacred Heart School in Yankton

1st place (2021): Abby Johanneson of Sacred Heart School in Yankton

Aborday.org/kids includes a variety of fun & educational activities from printable activity sheets to leaf identification & digital games.


The South Dakota State Tree is the Black Hills spruce, which is a variety of the more widespread white spruce found naturally only in southwest South Dakota and a small portion of northeast Wyoming. While not as widely known as other spruces, this ornamental spruce can be planted just about anywhere that the more common Colorado spruce will grow.

A new data-driven project called TreePlotter Inventory is now live online. Tree counts haven't been updated since 2011-12, according to Rachel Ormseth, Community Forestry Program Coordinator for the state's Resource Conservation & Forestry Division.

They are working to identify the location and types of tree species across the state. So far, 91 cities have been partially plotted and many more are still being uploaded and updated. An example of 1447 trees from Miller (SD) is shown below.

While the state doesn't quite look as covered in trees, it has 1.94 million acres of forest land, which is just about 4% of total land area. Our Black Hills holds the bulk of our state's forested land and the large majority of those trees are ponderosa pines. Get further details here.

DYK: There are 211.9 million "live" trees (with a minimum 5" diameter trunk at 4.5' high). The oldest tree in the state is 400 years old. “Rosa” the Ponderosa Pine in the Black Hills.

Only trees and other green plants can make their own food using light energy from the sun through photosynthesis. It not only sustains the plant but provides food, directly or indirectly, for all animal life.

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