Tree City USA promotes benefits of proper tree care in your community
For many, the image of a shaded, tree-lined street conveys a sense of community. For others, it conjures up childhood memories of summer days spent playing with friends until the streetlights come on.
For Doug Seely, helping cities get this sense of community and more has been his goal for six years. As a community forester with the not-for-profit Beyond Housing, Seely works to bring the benefits of urban forestry to 24 small communities in north St. Louis.
“In order to have successful communities, we have to have a successful infrastructure as well,” Seely said. “So, we consider trees to be a vital part of the infrastructure because of all the natural benefits that they provide for us.”
As a gauge of the program’s success, the number of communities earning the Tree City USA designation has increased from three to 12 since he began in 2016, with an additional designation pending, he said.
A City of Trees?
Every city has trees, so then why are some designated as a Tree City USA?
Tree City USA is a recognition program sponsored by the Arbor Day Foundation, U.S. Forest Service, National Association of State Foresters, and state forestry agencies, including MDC. A total of 105 Missouri communities were among the 3,676 communities recognized nationwide in 2020.
Established in 1976 as part of the United States’ Bicentennial celebration, the first communities were recognized in 1977 for their efforts to qualify the previous year. Mexico was the only Missouri community recognized during the inaugural year, and it has maintained the designation in 42 of the 44 years the program has been offered.
To earn Tree City USA recognition a community must maintain a tree board or department; have a community tree ordinance; spend at least $2 per capita on urban forestry; celebrate Arbor Day, and have an Arbor Day proclamation, said MDC Community Forestry Coordinator Russell Hinnah.
“The Tree City designation means different things to different communities,” Hinnah said. “Some use it to get people more active at volunteering. Some communities use it almost as a tourist draw that they’re an environmentally friendly community. Others use it just as a sense of pride — that they are a really small community and they’ve achieved this Tree City USA status just like the city of St. Louis has done.”
Among those small communities staking a claim to the Tree City USA title is Brunswick, a town of approximately 800 people in north-central Missouri. Consistently recognized as a Tree City since 1998, Brunswick views the designation as a source of community pride and opportunity for residents to be involved in the community, said Brunswick Tree Board Secretary Mary Riddle.
“People drive through our town, they can see that the community cares, because they can see the improvements in the beauty of the trees and the upkeep the citizens do to take care of our city,” Riddle said.
Tree City USA developed out of a collaboration of the U.S. Forest Service, National Association of State Foresters, and the Arbor Day Foundation. The Forest Service provides financial assistance and technical advice, state foresters provide local assistance as well as serving as promoters, certifiers, and coordinators in each state, and the foundation provides educational materials and management of the Tree City USA program. The common goal was to promote better management and health of state urban and community forests. The motivation for the founding of the program was a 1972 amendment to the Cooperative Forestry Management Act of 1950. This amendment authorized the creation of a Forest Service urban and community forestry program.
In 1991, the Tree City USA Growth Award was created to recognize communities doing more than the minimum requirements. In 2020, the Growth Award program categories were restructured with explanations of each category. The Growth Award may be earned every year or periodically. In 1991, Brentwood, Ellisville, Fenton, Ferguson, Mexico, and St Louis earned the Growth Award. St. Peters has earned the Growth Award for 21 straight years.
To find out if your community is a Tree City USA, check online at short.mdc.mo.gov/44C. If your community is a Tree City USA, contact your local tree board or department on how you can help. If your community is not a Tree City USA, start a conversation with your city leadership, local civic organizations, and neighbors about earning this recognition. Your community will be improved and benefit from this effort.
More Than Shade
Aside from the shade and improved aesthetics that trees provide, both of which have their own physical and mental health benefits, a full and healthy community forest landscape has much to offer those communities that embrace it. Trees, with their extensive root systems and large canopies, help mitigate the effects of stormwater run-off, thus improving water quality and minimizing the damage done by strong storms. Placed properly, trees can decrease home and commercial energy use, as well as decrease the “heat island” effect in urban areas. A mature and maintained neighborhood tree canopy also increases property values.
Beyond Housing’s Seely notes all these benefits and more. Trees can also help cleanse the air of particulate matter— a known cause of respiratory issues, especially in children.
“We have a high rate of asthma, especially within our youth in the Normandy Schools Collaborative, so one of our goals here is to try and have a positive impact on cleaner air so that we can reduce the risk of asthma to our residents,” he said.
Helping the Program Take Root
As mentioned earlier, it takes more than trees for a community to become a Tree City, and for some — especially small communities or those whose budgets are strained — committing to establishing tree ordinances and tree boards, budgeting for tree maintenance, and organizing Arbor Day proclamations and events may seem like going out on a limb. That’s why MDC, working with Tree City USA and the Arbor Day Foundation, provides support for interested communities.
“When people think about trees, the first thing they think about is planting trees,” said MDC’s Hinnah. “They think you just plant a tree and then forget about it, but we work with cities to manage the trees that they have and to get new trees in the ground. If you don’t manage those trees as far as care, then those trees can end up causing problems for you down the road.”
Creating the ordinance is often the most intimidating requirement when first qualifying for Tree City USA recognition. These guiding documents, which vary in length and detail to fit the community’s needs, take time to create, modify, review, and get approved. Tree City USA provides direction for tree boards to meet or exceed the minimum standards. Through state agencies, like MDC, tree boards and communities receive assistance through training and technical advice. Information on Tree City USA and other issues concerning community conservation is available online at mdc.mo.gov/community-conservation.
Assisting communities’ forestry needs has been a long-standing priority for MDC, Hinnah said.
“We’ve had these type of foresters — at least one community forester — in place since the ’60s,” he said. We were one of the first state agencies to have urban foresters in the United States.”
Since its introduction in 1976, Tree City USA has branched out in many directions, creating specialized programs to promote tree care for different institutions, including utilities and college and university campuses.
The Tree Line USA recognition program was established in 1994 to recognize utilities that meet guidelines developed specifically for them but follow the general requirements of Tree City USA.
Tree Line USA recognition requires utilities to follow industry standards for quality tree care, including pruning, planting, removals, trenching, and tunneling near trees; provide employees with annual tree care training; participate in tree plantings and public education; promote tree-based energy conservation; and sponsor an annual Arbor Day celebration.
City Utilities of Springfield earned Tree Line USA recognition the first year in 1994 and has since for the last 27 years. It is Missouri’s oldest Tree Line USA utility.
Utilities receive recognition for earning Tree Line USA recognition, but more importantly the care of trees in their service area improves, their clients receive tree education, and the long-term cost of tree maintenance around service lines often goes down in comparison to older methods resulting in utility rates being more stable.
“A lot of trees were planted in bad locations,” said Scott Gunzenhauser, City Utilities of Springfield vegetation management supervisor. “Everybody wants reliable electricity, right? So, we have to figure out a way to make the two work together.”
By making more thoughtful cuts when trimming and using tree growth regulators — chemicals that slow the regrowth of branches — crews can save trees that would otherwise need to be cut down to make sure they do not take out power lines during storms, Gunzenhauser said.
Through the company’s public outreach efforts, the utility has promoted the “right tree, right place” concept to ensure that new trees don’t interfere with power lines once fully grown, he said.
“That’s our big theme,” he said, “making sure you look up when you plant a tree, make sure that you call for locates when you go to dig the hole.”
The concept also applies to locating trees where they will offer the most shade in the summer while allowing sunlight through in the winter, thus lowering energy use.
Although not directly tree related, the company is also working to replace brush in the transmission line rights-of-way with pollinator-friendly plant species, he said.
More information on Tree Line USA is available online at arborday.org/programs/treelineusa.
In 2008, Tree City USA expanded again, introducing Tree Campus Higher Education, a program dedicated to improving the tree canopy on college campuses, involving students in tree-related service, and educating students and the public through Arbor Day activities. For more on Tree Campus Higher Education, see Putting Down Roots in the April 2021 issue of Missouri Conservationist.
Tree City USA takes its que from the establishment of Arbor Day 150 years ago. The first Arbor Day in the United States was celebrated in Nebraska on April 10, 1872, as a day set aside to commemorate trees and tree planting. Since then, every state has established an official annual Arbor Day. The national Arbor Day is the last Friday in April — April 22 this year. Missouri established the first Friday in April as its Arbor Day in 1886. Countries all around the planet also celebrate their version of Arbor Day.
As one might expect from a holiday with so many varying dates, the types of celebrations also vary, said MDC Community Forestry Coordinator Russell Hinnah.
“Throughout the state, you see a whole gamut of different Arbor Day celebrations, usually involves some tree planting,” Hinnah said. “Sometimes it’s one tree, sometimes it’s multiple trees. They try to get information out to their citizens to come, and usually they meet at a park and have a ceremony. Sometimes they plant a memorial tree.”
In addition to putting trees in the ground, Arbor Day celebrations also include putting ideas in the heads of children, said Brunswick Tree Board Secretary Mary Riddle.
“The main thing within our Arbor Day celebration is every year we plant a tree in honor of the kindergarten class for that year,” Riddle said. “In the 20 years that I’ve been involved, we’ve planted lots of kindergarten trees.
“Our main thing is to teach the children the importance of trees and the responsibility of taking care of them and how to take care of them, so education is really our goal.”
In the urban area served by Beyond Housing Forester Doug Seely, the focus is on junior high school students, many of whom are just starting to consider careers.
“We invite 7th and 8th graders from the Normandy Schools Collaborative to join us at the local county park, which is St. Vincent Park,” Seely said. “And we have a contractor that gets them to climb up into the canopy of the trees so they can experience that for themselves.”
The celebration Seely coordinates also includes tree plantings, the removal of invasive plant species, and discussions on forestry as a career path.
More on Arbor Day is available online at the Arbor Day Foundation website: arborday.org.
Many of the benefits of trees — and of being part of a program such as Tree City USA that promotes a healthy tree canopy — are obvious and measurable. Shaded homes use less energy to stay cool in the summer. Rainfall absorbed by root systems and tree canopy put less stress on stormwater systems. Some are harder to measure, but equally important, Seely said.
“A lot of the benefits that we gain from having tree canopy go unrecognized because it’s more subconscious,” he said. “So just by having shade and the color green — that can be relaxing to everybody and reduce stress, whether they think they dislike trees or love the heck out of them. So those are some of the qualities that we’re trying to open up to residents so they can understand that trees have more of a positive impact on their lives than what they think.”
To learn more about benefits of trees visit treeswork.org.
Also In This Issue
This Issue's Staff
Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld
Associate Editor - Larry Archer
Photography Editor - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Kristie Hilgedick
Staff Writer - Joe Jerek
Staff Writer – Dianne Van Dien
Designer - Shawn Carey
Designer - Marci Porter
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Circulation - Laura Scheuler