This State's Parks are Full of 'Happy Little Trees'

Ross, the soft-spoken host of "The Joy of Painting," often included "happy little trees" in his work, leading a Michigan DNR employee to wonder if his likeness could be used to promote a tree-planting program.

Ross, the soft-spoken host of "The Joy of Painting," often included "happy little trees" in his work, leading a Michigan DNR employee to wonder if his likeness could be used to promote a tree-planting program. Shutterstock

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A partnership between the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Bob Ross Inc. brought in new volunteers to help with reforestation efforts.

What do TV painter Bob Ross and Michigan’s state parks have in common?

Happy little trees.

A thousand of them, to be exact—all native species, planted in 22 Michigan state parks as part of a reforestation partnership between the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Bob Ross Inc.

The program, dubbed “Happy Little Trees,” is a rebranding of the state’s existing prison grow program, which teaches horticultural skills to inmates by allowing them to plant and care for tree seedlings. Once they’re big enough, the trees head off to state parks to be planted by volunteers, a visual that sparked an idea for Michelle Coss, the fund and resource development specialist for the state’s Parks and Recreation Division.

“We were in a marketing meeting and talking about the program, and my squirrel brain envisioned these trees leaving the prison and going to live in the campgrounds,” she said. “And I was like, ‘Oh, they’re happy little trees!’”

Happy little trees were a trademark of Bob Ross, the friendly, soft-spoken host of The Joy of Painting, an instructional art show that aired on PBS from 1982 to 1994. Ross believed, and often said, that anyone could paint, and encouraged his audience to embrace their mishaps as “happy accidents.” He died in 1995 but lives on as a pop-culture icon, with memes and parodies abundant on the internet. He was also a nature lover—his paintings focused on nature scenes, from mountains to sunsets and, of course, trees—and Coss saw an opportunity to promote Michigan’s parks centennial.

“I thought I’d reach out to Bob Ross Inc. and see if they would let us work with them,” she said. “I pitched it, and they absolutely loved it.  And that’s kind of how it all got started.”

The rebranded program launched in April on Arbor Day, encouraging residents to volunteer to plant trees in state parks to receive a “Happy Planting” T-shirt emblazoned with four green pine trees and Bob Ross’ smiling face and resplendent crown of permed hair.

Courtesy Michigan DNR

Typically, the DNR gets a tepid response to its calls for volunteers, Coss said—mostly local “friends of the park” groups totaling about 20 people.

“Once we opened this up, 500 people volunteered to plant trees—a lot more than in normal years,” she said. “It helped us broaden the scope of people that we could bring in, including some people who had never been to our parks. It has brought in a whole new, different dynamic of people who are interested in volunteering.”

The shirts proved popular, so non-volunteers can now purchase them online. A portion of the proceeds gets funneled back to the replanting effort, Coss said. To further promote the program, six of Michigan’s 103 state parks now have “Happy Little Trees Ahead” signs featuring Ross’ grinning visage. 

Courtesy Michigan DNR

“We’ve been so pleased with the attention the program has received,” Coss said. “Bob Ross Inc. was excited, too. They told me initially they were definitely interested because, secretly, everyone has to love trees to work there.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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