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Tree City USA: A Foundation For Better Tree Care

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Published on: Sep. 2, 1997

Last revision: Oct. 27, 2010

Imagine a community with no trees. No buffer from the frigid January wind. No splash of color and sweet fragrance of blossoms for an April stroll. No shade from the July sun.

In a state like Missouri, where trees are abundant and communities green, it's hard to imagine life without trees. Most of us take our community's trees for granted and never stop to think about the amazing benefits they provide. Trees increase property values, reduce heating and cooling costs, control floods, clean the air, reduce noise, attract tourists, improve our psychological well-being and beautify your surroundings.

The U.S. Forest Service estimates that market values for homes are increased 7 to 20 percent by the presence of trees. In a study in Chicago, the U.S. Forest Service found that a single 25-foot tree can reduce annual heating and cooling costs by 2 to 4 percent, or $28 to $86 per year. When a yard has several trees, the energy savings are increased proportionally.

However, trees in cities and towns cannot be taken for granted. City trees face daily stresses their country cousins never thought about. Soil disturbance and compaction, air pollution, de-icing salt, vandalism, accidental injury and the threat of development are just a few of the problems that attack the health and well-being of community trees.

City trees require care to provide the benefits we often take for granted. Progressive communities have recognized the value of their community's trees and consider trees an important part of their city's infrastructure. For many such cities and towns, the first step toward maintaining, improving and protecting their community's trees is participation in the national Tree City USA program.

Tree City USA (TCUSA) is a community improvement program sponsored by the National Arbor Day Foundation, in cooperation with the National Association of State Foresters, USDA Forest Service, U.S. Conference of Mayors and National League of Cities. Tree City USA goals include recognizing cities and towns that effectively manage their community's trees and encourage the implementation of well planned local forestry programs.

In Missouri, 34 communities received Tree City USA status in 1996. Missouri's Tree City USA community with the largest population is Kansas City, and the smallest Tree City USA is Exeter. Mexico holds the distinction of becoming the first Missouri Tree City USA in 1976 and has recertified its status 17 out of 20 years since that time.

To qualify for Tree City USA, a town or city must meet four standards established by the National Arbor Day Foundation and its cooperators. These standards are designed to ensure that every community to reach Tree City USA distinction has an established, viable tree management program and plan. Yet the standards are obtainable by communities of any size.

Standard 1: A Tree Board or Department

Most Missouri communities have lots of trees, a large portion of which are located on public property, such as street rights-of-way, parks and the grounds surrounding public buildings. Someone must be legally responsible for the care and management of these community trees. This someone could be a professional forester, an arborist or a volunteer tree board. A tree board is a group of concerned citizens charged by ordinance to develop and administer a comprehensive tree management program for their community.

A tree board can generate broad-based community involvement that is essential to a successful community forestry program. Mary Alice Reinhardt is president of Centralia's tree board. "With the support of city government, civic organizations, schools and volunteers," says Reinhardt, "the tree board has raised awareness of the overall importance of trees to our community; people take trees for granted and must be awakened to the necessity of trees for good living. Tree City USA has helped open eyes in Centralia.

Standard 2: A Community Tree Ordinance

A community tree ordinance needs to designate the tree board or department responsible for writing and implementing the annual community forestry work plan. An ordinance also should establish policies for tree planting, maintenance and removal of trees located on city property. Beyond these components, a municipal tree ordinance should remain flexible enough to meet the particular needs and concerns of an individual community.

Standard 3: A Community Forestry Program with an annual budget of at least $2 per capita

This standard may at first seem like an impossible barrier to some communities interested in obtaining Tree City USA status. However, a close investigation of a city or town's budget usually reveals that this amount is already being spent by the community on its trees. Qualifying expenditures include such items as city workers' salaries when they are caring for or dealing with problems that arise from community trees, dead tree removal, leaf and brush pick-up, tree planting, equipment purchases, equipment rental or maintenance, mulching, pruning, care of storm damaged trees, stump removal, biomass recycling and Arbor Day events.

Most communities already have some form of community forestry program and don't even know it. In Missouri, during 1996, the average per capita dollar expenditure for the 34 Tree City USA communities was $6.65.

Standard 4: Arbor Day observance and proclamation

This standard is probably the easiest and most enjoyable part of the Tree City USA program. Your community's Arbor Day celebration can be simple and brief, or it can be an all-day, all-weekend or all-week event. Make Arbor Day a fun, educational and memorable event -- plant trees or hold tours to see outstanding, unusual or historic trees. Organize an Arbor Day fun run or an Arbor Day fair. Celebrate the fine arts and have a poster or poetry contest, an Arbor Day concert of songs or an Arbor Day play or pageant. Use your imagination, be creative and celebrate the benefits and beauty trees provide for your community.

In Missouri, Tree City USA towns celebrate Arbor Day in unique ways. In Ballwin, Arbor Day promoters invited a group of elementary students to participate in a special tree planting project in memory of their school's principal. The Dexter Tree Council hosted an Arbor Day tree sale and sold potted trees to raise money for community beautification projects. The city of St. Joseph sponsored an Arbor Day essay contest for local high school students and read the winning essay at their annual Arbor Day ceremony.

In Fenton, the Arbor Day group invited several local fourth-grade classes to Arbor Day activities, including a movie, scavenger hunt and a tree planting ceremony. The city of Blue Springs' "Arborfest 1995" included a tree planting workshop, Tree City USA award presentation, an Arborfest poster contest for elementary students, an essay contest for students grades 7-12 and a drawing for two free tickets to see the legendary rock group the Eagles.

A community that earns Tree City USA recognition from the National Arbor Day Foundation and its cooperators will receive a beautiful walnut-mounted plaque, a large Tree City USA flag and highway signs for entrances to the community. These items are usually presented by a forester from the Conservation Department at the community's annual Arbor Day ceremony or event.

The signs, flags, plaques and ceremonies provide publicity opportunities for a Tree City USA community. However, the real benefit a town or city receives by becoming a Tree City USA comes from meeting the four standards described here.

These standards create the basic components necessary for a viable and successful community forestry program, and they give trees status in the community. The Tree City USA signs along public highways and the flag flying over the courthouse or city hall tells visitors, "We care about the environment and, in our community, trees are considered important, valuable components of the infrastructure, worthy of care, protection and celebration."

Being a Tree City USA presents the kind of image most citizens want for their town. Bob Belote, assistant director of Blue Springs Parks and Recreation Department, says "The distinction of Tree City USA is not one taken lightly. Combining the tree board's volunteer efforts with the city's resources has made for a potent team in promoting tree-related efforts."

The Conservation Department gives Tree City USA communities preference over other communities when making allocations of grant money for tree planting projects and other community forestry efforts. Other granting agencies have more confidence in communities demonstrating their commitment to the trees in their community by becoming a Tree City USA.

Finally, being a Tree City USA creates a sense of community pride. It is an accomplishment that communities can be proud of, and this pride often results in better care of trees on private properties. Ruth Doherty, a member of the Blue Springs Tree Board, describes the benefits of Tree City USA.

"When we began in 1990, we hoped to become a resource for our community, but in the process, we have also become a resource for other communities seeking Tree City USA status. By sharing what we've learned, the benefits are increased exponentially."

Trees, our silent citizens, need our help. Tree City USA provides the foundation and the framework necessary for a community supported, successful forestry program. If you care about the trees in your town, take the lead and support, promote and assist your community's effort to become a Tree City USA. triangle

MISSOURI'S Tree City USA communities in 1996

  • Ballwin
  • Blue Springs
  • Branson
  • Brentwood
  • Centralia
  • Clayton
  • Crestwood
  • Des Peres
  • Dexter
  • Ellisville
  • Exeter
  • Fenton
  • Ferguson
  • Florissant
  • Grandview
  • Jackson
  • Kansas City
  • Kirksville
  • Kirkwood
  • Lee's Summitt
  • Memphis
  • Mexico
  • Parkville
  • Richmond Heights
  • Rock Hill
  • Springfield
  • St. Joseph
  • St. Louis
  • Stanberry
  • Sturgeon
  • University City
  • Warson Woods
  • Webster Groves
  • Whiteman AFB

How to become a Tree City USA

  • Obtain an application form from a Conservation Department office or the National Arbor Day Foundation.
  • If your community already meets the four required standards, fill out the application and collect supporting documentation. If not, contact your local Conservation Department office for help.
  • When your community meets the four standards, the mayor or another city official should submit the application and documentation to the Conservation Department no later than Dec. 31. There is no fee associated with this program.
  • Applications then are reviewed and approved by the Conservation Department before being forwarded to the National Arbor Day Foundation.

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