Talking Sense

Arbor Day tradition aims to put trees in ground while easing political tensions at Capitol

A man gestures to a tree
Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, on April 10 stands by one of the first Arbor Day trees he planted on his hobby farm in Harmony during his first term in the Legislature nearly 20 years ago.
Clay Masters | MPR News

Updated 10:44 a.m.

The signs of early spring are all around as a chorus of birds sing on Rep. Rick Hansen’s hobby farm outside Harmony in southeast Minnesota. 

The DFL chair of the House Environmental Committee from South St. Paul trudges up a hill on this land — it’s been in his family since the late 1800s and it is where his mother grew up. He points out a tree he planted during his first year in the Legislature.

“I’ve been using Arbor Day trees I get to fill in the holes,” Hansen said with a chuckle, adding not all the trees he plants survive the elements. “It’s part of the circle of life.”

The Arbor Day trees he references are part of a Minnesota House tradition that began decades ago. Two Democrats and two Republicans started passing out tree saplings to recognize the importance of forestry in the state and to have a brief respite from partisan clashes.

“Whether it’s in the pinelands up north, or in the oak country down here or even in the prairie, where the cottonwoods are, people planting trees (is) something that I think Minnesotans pass on from generation to generation,” Hansen said.

The four lawmakers split the cost and the last few years they’ve been buying from Schumacher Nursery in Heron Lake. On Thursday, lawmakers will pass out three wildlife-friendly species of trees: black cherry, cranberry bush and white oak.

A tradition growing some deep roots

The first Arbor Day recognition in the United States was in 1872 in Nebraska. Minnesota adopted the tradition four years later. By the 1920s, each state had passed a law for an Arbor Day observance. 

The Minnesota House Arbor Day tradition was started as a symbol of working together.

“We were always able to do this bipartisanly,” said former Republican Rep. Denny McNamara, one of the early organizers of handing out trees.  

McNamara, of Hastings, served on environment committees for 14 years in the Legislature and away from the Capitol worked as a landscape contractor. 

Speeches on the House floor over the years have ranged from touting the importance and legacy of forestry in Minnesota to how to care for the seedlings once in the ground.

“The first seedling I received on the floor of the House, I measured last night … it’s 14 feet tall,” former Republican Rep. Dennis Ozment said in 2004. “These things really do grow and it keeps you a reminder of what some of our actions should be about here.”

Former DFL Rep. Loren Solberg was another one of the original organizers. He said today’s current hyper-partisan political climate calls for more interactions across party lines.

 “Try your best to understand where they come from because that’s how they get to understand you as well,” Solberg said. “It’s extremely important.”

Extending an olive branch on Arbor Day

“I don’t think there’s a single member that walks into our session on Arbor Day and says, ‘Oh, gee, they’re handing out trees … that’s terrible,’” Republican Rep. Josh Heintzeman of Nisswa said with a laugh. “I think everybody’s, for the most part, clamoring for trees.”

Heintzeman is the lead Republican on the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee and owns a custom woodworking business in the Brainerd lakes region. He’s one of the lawmakers behind this year’s effort and reflects on being in the minority party at the Capitol.

“At the moment, the process has been very challenging for my members and for myself personally,” Heintzeman said. “I’m getting a sense that the public has begun to recognize some of those same concerns and share those concerns. Is there an opportunity on Arbor Day to potentially have some détente for a moment? Possibly.”

DFL Rep. Heather Edelson, who is also part of this year’s distribution, said clashes in public doesn’t necessarily mean hostility among lawmakers.

“What you might see in committee with us disagreeing doesn’t mean that we don’t actually get along,” she said.

Meanwhile, back at Hansen’s farm, he notes it’s harder to work across party lines than when he was first elected 20 years ago.

“As environment chair, I think the pollution in our politics is the money and it’s causing these problems,” Hansen said. “Because you can have unlimited spending, and that mostly is negative, and then that makes it harder to work together.”

He said distributing these trees isn’t going to solve the problem, but the little acts of kindness are important as things wind down at the Capitol. He looks forward to the escapes to the hobby farm in Harmony when the week’s work in St. Paul winds down.

“When I’m when driving, I can feel the tension get away,” Hansen said. “You can hear the birds around us — that’s a lot different than hearing from lobbyists.”

A sign outside
Rep. Rick Hansen's farm is located just outside of Harmony, pictured April 10 — a fitting town name for some of the Arbor Day trees meant to signal a bipartisan harmonious tradition.
Clay Masters | MPR News
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