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Happy Little 5K raises $300K to fight invasive species

Inspired by Bob Ross’ love of the outdoors, more than 18,000 people took part in this year’s Happy Little Virtual 5K late last month between Earth Day and Arbor Day.

The tree-planting program — where seeds are placed in the care of inmates in one of Michigan Department of Correction’s education programs — began in 2004, but grew into the Happy Little Trees program in 2019 during the Michigan state parks centennial, when the DNR Parks and Recreation Division and Bob Ross Inc. partnered on programming to help raise awareness of tree-planting and forest protection efforts in state parks.

The program began with hundreds of volunteers helping to plant “happy little trees” at locations hard-hit by invasive pests and tree diseases, but the partnership quickly expanded to include thousands of runners and walkers raising awareness and funding for stewardship efforts through the Run for the Trees/Happy Little Virtual 5K.

Race proceeds support tree-planting and forest protection efforts — such as invasive plant and forest pest management and early detection surveys — in Michigan state parks and recreation areas. Many of those locations have been affected by tree pests and diseases like emerald ash borer and oak wilt.

This year’s Happy Little Virtual 5K welcomed 18,089 participants, 70% of whom hailed from Michigan, followed next by Ohio and Wisconsin. All 50 states were represented, and 150 people participated internationally from England, Australia, and Mexico.

Participants completed their 5K anywhere outdoors anytime between April 22-30. For $34 per person, each participant received a keepsake Happy Little T-shirt, a commemorative bib number and a finisher’s medal featuring a reproduction of a real Bob Ross painting. This year’s race raised $305,000 for tree-planting and forest protection efforts in state parks.

The program has produced more than 100,000 native plants, shrubs and trees since its start in 2004. With support from the Bob Ross partnership, more than 2,100 trees have been planted in 20 state parks across Michigan. The U.S. Forest Service Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and Chateau Grand Traverse also have provided significant support for the program.

“Over the past two years, this Bob Ross-inspired event has generated more than $600,000 for tree planting and efforts to protect forests in state parks,” said Michelle O’Kelly, fund developer and Happy Little Trees race director for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ Parks and Recreation Division. “Though the race takes place in the short window between Earth Day and Arbor Day, the positive impact on Michigan’s ‘Happy Little Trees’ will be felt for many years – and many trees – to come.”

Learn more about the program at Michigan.gov/DNRHappyLittleTrees.

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