At such a tense time for the country — with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and in the midst of one of the most contentious presidential elections — several local community leaders got together Thursday to do something simple: plant trees.

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley commemorated Arbor Day differently this year with a virtual tree planting ceremony and the showing of a short documentary.

The event, which was broadcast live, was hosted by UTRGV Chief Sustainability Officer Marianella Franklin and included guest speakers UTRGV Associate-VP for Facilities, Planning and Operation Marta Salinas Hovar, Texas Forest Service RGV Forrester Bill Green and UTRGV Associate Dean of the School of Earth, Environment and Marine Sciences Dr. Alexis Racelis.

Arbor Day was first celebrated in Nebraska in 1872 by J. Sterling Morton. On April 10 of that year, 1 million trees were planted in the state. By 1875, Nebraska declared April 22 as Arbor Day. However, Texas celebrates Arbor Day on the first Friday of November when the weather is cooler.

The host kicked off the event by discussing UTRGV’s forestry.

“During Hurricane Hanna, we actually had an 80% damage of our forestry just in the Edinburg campus alone,” Franklin said.

She added that a major motive for students’ choosing UTRGV for higher education is because of its forestry scenery. Franklin also expressed gratitude for UTRGV’s grounds maintenance crew for taking care of the campus’ 680-plus acres of land.

Following Franklin’s opening remarks was a brief video of a tree planting ceremony that took place at the Brownsville Visitors Commission Center.

Foresters Roy Reyes and Bill Green planted a wild olive tree and taught viewers the best way to plant a tree.

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley hosted a virtual tree planting ceremony Thursday to commemorate Arbor Day. (Screengrab)

“One of the first things you want to think about is if you have the right tree for the right place,” Green said.

Reyes emphasized the importance of digging a hole of appropriate size for the tree.

“Before planting the tree, you want to go two to three sizes bigger than the pot size,” Reyes said.

He added that the holes should not be too deep and the watering process differs for each tree size.

The Arbor Day event marked six consecutive years of UTRGV’s membership in the Tree Campus USA program, which recognizes colleges and universities that work to maintain the forestry on their campuses while actively encouraging students to plant and care for trees.

Guest speaker Bill Green did a short presentation during the event in which he listed the benefits of trees and nature.

“Trees are important to us in so many ways,” Green said. “Not only does the shade from the trees reduce our electric bills during the hot Texas summers, but trees also increase the property values of our homes are also important in protecting our environment by cleaning our air and reducing the effects of climate change.”

Dr. Alexis Racelis was the next guest speaker in the event and discussed his community forestry class that he is running this semester along with Green.

“In partnership with the Texas Forests Service, we’ve offered a class for students in science to learn about the benefits and ecosystem services of urban trees,” Racelis said.

The class, called Community Engaged Scholarship and Learning, focuses on community forestry.

Students taking the course learn about the trees on campus — their different sizes, ages and health statuses. They are also encouraged to go out into their communities and collect data about other trees.

Additionally, students go to eight homes in Edinburg and plant trees and landscape yards.

Near the end of the event, a short documentary called “Selah Water from Stone” was broadcasted. The documentary told the story of J. David Bamberger who founded the Selah Bamberger Ranch Preserve in north San Antonio.

Bamberger restored the area by planting grass seeds and using the rainwater that stayed in the roots which created an aquifer to then create 11 water springs all over the ranch. This water now provides sustenance for the wildlife in the area and runs through to Austin.

In her closing remarks, Franklin reiterated the importance of Arbor Day emphasizing how reforestation in the Valley is currently taking place.

“There are some great websites to learn more about the benefits of trees and how to plant trees,” Green said. “Please check out Arbor Day Foundation website as well as the Trees Are Good website and the Texas Tree Planting website where you can find suggestions on what trees are best to plant based in the county where you live.”

Arlene Bocanegra is a student at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.