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Bob Ross’ ecological legacy lives on in thousands of Michigan’s Happy Little Trees

The “happy little trees,” the late artist Bob Ross who taught millions to paint, have become real trees grown by inmates in Michigan, thanks to a unique partnership between the Department of Natural Resources and state correctional facilities.

Since 2004, more than 100,000 native plants, shrubs and trees have been planted under the Michigan DNR and State Department of Corrections programs. Inmates raise the trees and learn gardening skills until they are about 5 feet tall, and then volunteers go back and collect the trees and plant them in Michigan State Parks.

When the Parks and Recreation team discussed a great way to spread the word about the program, Michelle O’Kelly of DNR Fund and Resource Development thought of artist and TV host Ross.

“Think of this tree that lives in a correctional facility and is now allowed to go and live in a beautiful park. And so the tree is happy,” recalls O’Kelly.

After reaching out to Bob Ross Inc. to ask if Parks and Recreation could take Ross’s “happy little trees” saying and use his picture, O’Kelly was given the green light. and the program was renamed “Happy Little Trees”.

Something "Happy little trees" are planted after being raised in Michigan Department of Corrections facilities.
Some “Happy Little Trees” are planted after being raised in Michigan Department of Corrections facilities.
Michigan DNR Parks and Recreation

“They said, of course, ‘Yes, we’d like to do that. Bob would love that,'” O’Kelly said, adding that it’s been a great partnership.

In 2019, with some federal funding running out, the team again turned to Ross for inspiration, and the “Happy Little 5K” was born.

“They let us use his picture out of the kindness of their hearts,” O’Kelly said of the Kowalski family and Bob Ross Inc.

O’Kelly said they expected maybe 1,000 people to register to run the 5K at a state park, but when the DNR set up an email so people could find out when registration opened, they reported attended by more than 20,000 people.

“It was pretty quick that people would reach out and say, ‘We live in a different state, we live in a different country, we’d like to participate. We support the program and we love Bob Ross.’” recalls O’Kelly. “That’s why we decided to do the whole thing virtually.”

The program partners with AmeriCorp and other volunteer groups.
The program partners with AmeriCorp and other volunteer groups.
Michigan DNR Parks and Recreation

Runners and walkers can complete the 3.1 miles between April 22 (Earth Day) and April 29 (Arbor Day). In the first year of the event, more than 19,000 people worldwide and in all 50 states attended.

O’Kelly estimates that the run has raised just under $1 million in the three years since 5K racing began. It costs $34 to register, and part of that pays for shipping, along with the special Bob Ross medals and t-shirts, but what’s left helps plant more trees and pays for the equipment that’s needed used to mitigate invasive species and move trees.

Before COVID, O’Kelly estimates volunteers are planting about 1,000 trees a year. The program works with AmeriCorp and other volunteer groups to move the trees to their final homes.

“We definitely have this long list of people willing and willing to plant trees for us when we’re ready,” O’Kelly said.

On your next visit to a Michigan State Park, look for the bright green Happy Little Trees Ahead signs to spot trees that are part of the program.

https://nypost.com/2022/04/20/bob-ross-environmental-legacy-living-on-through-thousands-of-happy-little-trees-in-michigan/ Bob Ross’ ecological legacy lives on in thousands of Michigan’s Happy Little Trees

DUSTIN JONES

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