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Plant a tree, salve a nation

Dear Mr. Bush: With the election past, you've got two tasks ahead: Setting up your administration, and rinsing away the sour taste of a negative campaign. You know how to do the first. Here's a suggestion for the second.

What you need, just now, is a broad, symbolic, positive gesture that captures the imagination and uplifts the spirit. Suppose it touched on the education of small children: That would both reach the nation's heart and address an issue desperately needing attention. Suppose it also dealt with the environment - increasingly a front-burner issue for Americans. Suppose, too, it addressed a topic of global significance, putting your administration in touch with a world crying out for care. Finally, suppose it didn't cost much.

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Here's the idea: Spearhead a campaign to have every first-grader in America plant a tree.

Sound corny? Good: It needs to be simple. However, the benefits are anything but silly. Here's why.

This past summer's heat seared the words ``greenhouse effect'' indelibly into public consciousness. Never mind that no link can be proved between a few months' drought and a long-term climatic change. People now know some important things about the global warming trend. First, they understand that excess carbon dioxide generated by burning fossil fuels is gradually raising the earth's temperature. Second, they know that CO2 is recycled by plants - especially big ones, like trees - but that the earth is losing its forest cover.

With Brazil's forests disappearing at the rate of about one football field per second, for instance, it's not surprising that concerned onlookers are beginning to think hard about reforestation plans. One, called Global ReLeaf, has just been launched by the Washington-based American Forestry Association. Its goal: Plant 100 million trees in American communities by 1992, not simply to beautify but to stem the CO2 buildup.

But even 100 million trees, according to Global ReLeaf's R.Neil Sampson, is only ``directional'': While it sets a trend, it doesn't pretend to be the cure. The goal of AFA and other organizations like the National Arbor Day Foundation is educational - to teach the importance of trees, and to get people committed to them.

Did you know, for example, that three well-placed trees around a house can cut air conditioning bills by 10 to 50 percent? Did you know that a tree shading a piece of pavement can help cool a city, lower the demand for energy, and save fossil fuels - indirectly cutting out 15 times more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than the tree itself can recycle? I didn't, either. Imagine what might have happened if we'd both learned those things in first grade.

What's more, a tree - especially one that the child has planted and watched develop - can be an object lesson for learning about sun, wind, rain, soils, life-cycles, habitats, and wood products. It supplies dozens of metaphors - about bending in gales, about standing tall on strong foundations, about splitting rocks with soft roots. And about continuity. Imagine going back to your home town 50 years later and saying, ``There's a tree my class planted.''

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These days, such classes could plant some 3.5 million trees a year - one for every child entering first grade. Most communities need trees, says Mr. Sampson - in parks, along highways, in parking lots, in private yards. But are seedlings available? Increasingly so. Louisiana Pacific Corporation, for example, a forest products company in east Texas, is now growing some hardwood seedlings in its nurseries - not for its own commercial reforestation (which uses pine), but solely to give away to tree-planting groups.

Needed, just now, is leadership. Give this idea the clout of a White House program, and we'll soon be raising acres of new trees in a nation of new tree lovers.

The costs? Pretty small. Someone needs to prepare tree-planting brochures that kids and teachers can use. And someone needs to supply the seedlings, which cost only about 12 cents each.

The benefits? Just think about the symbolism: kids, seedlings, and a new administration, all starting out together. What better way to rinse out that sour taste.

A Monday column

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