On Monday, October 26, 2015, American Forests hosted a ceremonial tree planting at the East Capitol Urban Farm in honor of its 140th anniversary and to recognize the signing of a new MOU with the U.S. Forest Service. During the ceremony, Scott Steen, President & CEO of American Forests, gave the following remarks:

Scott Steen
Scott Steen. President & CEO of American Forests, giving his speech. Credit: American Forests.

“Before the theory of relativity, the aspirin, the x-ray and the discovery of the electron; before the automobile, the telephone, motion pictures and electric light; before airplanes flew and radios gave us knowledge of the world beyond our own towns — before all those things, American Forests was at work.

American Forests was there as waves of immigrants began the journey westward. We were there at the very genesis of the conservation movement in America. We were there as a new view took hold that perhaps nature had a value in and of itself, beyond its immediate utility to humans; and we were there as a new dawn revealed a planet more fragile than we knew.

During this same time, timber barons were rapidly stripping the Midwest and West of their forests, while homesteaders were just as quickly converting forest to farmland. North American wildlife was being hunted to the point of extinction. People needed jobs and houses, farmland and food.

It seemed the choice was nature or progress. But, we at American Forests said — both.

It was one of our founders who convinced President Grant that managing forests was the responsibility of the federal government. And, it was at an American Forest Congress in 1905 that a consensus was forged to create a national agency to care for our forests. And, with that, our partnership with the U.S. Forest Service began.

American Forests was there in 1933, as our nation was in the grip of the Great Depression. With unemployment, hunger and homelessness spiking, caring for our forests seemed like a low priority.

People needed jobs. They needed places to live. They needed food.

Again, we argued that this was a false choice, that we can meet the needs of nature AND of men.

At our urging, less than a month after taking office, President Franklin Roosevelt signed a bill making the Civilian Conservation Corps a reality.

Decades later, in the 1960s and ‘70s, America’s cities were burning. Crime, poverty and struggle defined our urban life. Urban renewal was demolishing old neighborhoods and putting up endless concrete landscapes.

But, we believed that nature in cities — trees, parks and fields —was a vital connection to our own humanity and could be used to solve urban problems.

Once again, the argument was set up as progress or nature. Once again, American Forests said both. And, the urban forest movement was given shape.

During the past 25 years, we have planted 50 million trees in more than 1,000 restoration projects. Nearly half of these have been in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service.

This work has made our water and air cleaner and our cities greener.

Working together, we have helped cool the planet and slow the creep of climate change. And, we have protected and restored habitat for dozens of threatened and endangered species, from grizzly bears to gopher tortoises.

Our belief that nature can enable human progress is at work right here, on this three-acre urban farm set in a neighborhood that has often lacked access to fresh produce. Right here, on what was once a vacant lot in the middle of the city, a group of innovators chose to use nature to solve a human challenge.

Nature and progress. Both. Today, the need for this kind of thinking is even greater and the stakes are higher than ever before.

Once again, there are those who would tell us that protecting wildlife is too expensive; that addressing climate change costs jobs; that we can have forests or we can have houses; that nature will take care of itself, and we should let the market decide.

But, we have learned time and again that by caring for nature we are caring for humanity.

As we look forward to our continuing partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and to our next 140 years, our calling at American Forests remains this: to find new ways to say both — wildlife AND human life; forests AND prosperity; nature AND progress. It’s not going to be easy. But, the reality is, to have either, we must have both.”