Arbor Day Foundation Controversy: Watch Out for Tree-Trimming Scam Artists

Don’t be fooled by scammers pretending to be with the Arbor Day Foundation.

Eva Hagan - Author

Apr. 24 2024, Published 11:54 a.m. ET

A photo of a sign that says "Tree City USA" in front of a tree.
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The Arbor Day Foundation has made a big impact on the number of trees planted each year, encouraging people to plant trees through the annual Arbor Day (which falls on Friday, April 26, 2024), and also supplying saplings to foundation members.

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However, you may have heard a thing or two about scandals circulating the Arbor Day Foundation.

There are, of course, scandals surrounding Arbor Day's founder, the controversial J. Sterling Morton (more on him later). There's also the common trend of people pretending to be tree specialists — but are these scammers affiliated with the Arbor Day Foundation? Here’s what you should know to keep yourself safe from these tree-trimming scams.

A person plants a small tree in some mulch.
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The Arbor Day Foundation warns against scammers pretending to be with the organization.

Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for people to pose as arborists, pretending to be with the Arbor Day Foundation, according to the foundation.

Per Consumer Protection Investigators via a SummitDaily article, for these scams, con artists will typically show up on your doorstep, and pretend to be with a tree service company (or other home service company). Then, they will either not actually do the work they promised, or just do very little work on your trees — and then charge you cash. Then, they'll leave without giving you any contact info before you realize they were scamming you, so you won't be able to demand a refund.

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Finding a qualified specialist is so important when removing a tree, and the Arbor Day Foundation recommends always doing online research to find a reputable company, and asking for evidence of an insurance certificate.

A good thing to check for is whether the company is a member of the National Arborist Association (NAA), the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA), or the American Society of Consulting Arborists (ASCA). This ensures the highest level of safety and education in current tree removal practices.

A person picks up a plastic tube of a free tree given out by the Arbor Foundation.
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Is the Arbor Day Foundation legit?

The Arbor Foundation is a legitimate nonprofit, with a 98 percent rating on Charity Navigator, based on research into the organization’s finances, leadership, and overall transparency.

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However, there have been some complaints from donors who claim that the Arbor Day Foundation's offer of free trees is a scam. According to the Arbor Day Foundation, a membership to the foundation, which involves a one-time or recurring donation, includes 10 free trees, tree nursery discounts, a tree photo book with information all about trees in the U.S., as well as a subscription to the Arbor Day magazine.

However, some members have complained that their free trees never came, even years after the first donation. On the website Great Nonprofits, a user wrote on Arbor Day the Foundation's page on Nov. 28, 2023: “So I still have not received the tree/plant order from the first time I donated to you, over two years ago. I have donated to your organization twice. This is ridiculous.”

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Another user wrote on Aug. 3, 2023: “Received my free trees after my donation — should have said my free dead twigs in a black goo like substance — totally disgusting to handle and send potential future beautiful trees as a total mess.”

According to the Arbor Day Foundation’s Frequently Asked Questions, members are sent seedlings that range from 6 to 12 inches long, and should look like sticks. It's unclear why these particular donors had these negative experiences, and the foundation encourages unhappy members to contact Member Services with questions about their trees.

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The Arbor Day Foundation's founder caused a scandal for the organization.

Former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and Nebraska native J. Sterling Morton founded Arbor Day in 1872, and his contributions to conservation are certainly appreciable. However, the scandal that Morton brought upon Arbor Day is his deep-seated racism.

According to History Nebraska, throughout his life, Morton supported slavery; he believed Black people were inferior to white people; and he was against the Emancipation Proclamation. These viewpoints were not unique at the time — many white Americans held the same discriminatory beliefs, and they were even the norm — but considering Morton's public influence, his work spreading these racist beliefs undoubtedly caused harm.

In June 2020, in the midst of a racial reckoning in the U.S., the Arbor Day Foundation released a long overdue statement condemning Morton's racism.

"J. Sterling Morton, the man who developed the idea for the Arbor Day holiday, was a vocal anti-abolitionist who held deeply flawed beliefs regarding race and slavery. The Arbor Day Foundation condemns those beliefs," the statement read. "We regret not condemning Morton's racist views earlier and we commit to addressing this issue with transparency moving forward."

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