Tree City USA is celebrating 40 years! The following guest post is part of a Tree City USA series that features the 16 communities that have been recognized all 40 years of the program.
Written by: Burke Lewis, Park Superintendent
Newton, Kansas, has been a Tree City USA since 1976. I came to town 10 years later, so here’s my take on Newton’s forestry highlights from the past 30 years.
In 1986 Newton had an established arboretum, a tree removal program to help homeowners with American elms dying of Dutch elm disease, a small planting program to help replace those dying elms, and an Arbor Day celebration with the local school district.
In my first few years, I spent my time addressing the dying American elm population, managing a tree planting coupon program, and trying to get the city to invest more heavily in its urban forest. In the fall of 1986, I received funding to landscape the downtown city parking lot behind our Historic Fox Theatre with Osage orange ‘Park’, lacebark elms, Amur maples, and ‘Whitehouse’ and ‘Redspire’ ornamental pears. I convinced the city to purchase trees to be planted in specific sites along the streets to make a positive impact. The city had never planted right-of-way trees before, so I convinced my wife to help me plant the first 20 English oaks. I thought Newton was on its way.
By 1990 Newton was making obvious progress. Planting programs were running to replace older, worn-out trees in the parks and public green spaces, the American elms were failing in much fewer numbers along Newton’s streets, and our public was taking advantage of our planting programs to help diversify our urban forest.
During a major flood in ’93, I flew over Newton and was amazed at what a green oasis I saw. The contrast between Newton and the dusty green plains equaled the contrast between a Wyoming golf course and the western desert. I knew then Newton’s urban forest was creating a cooler, shady micro-environment, which made me proud.
In the ’90s, Newton also started including street tree replacement in all of its major street projects. This started with High Street, followed by the downtown corridor, East First Street and then East Broadway.
I was amazed at the changes I saw come with the new millennium for Newton’s urban forest. Newton’s City Manager handed me our Tree City USA award and told me we should landscape our entrances and thoroughfares to make the place more attractive. I took the additional $10,000 a year provided in my budget and started planting more street trees. Looking back, it’s as if he saw the 2005 ice storm coming and wanted to get out ahead of the whole mess.
The ice storm in January 2005 devastated our area. In the aftermath, city crews collected more than 4,000 truckloads of downed limbs and branches from throughout the city. Public trees fared no better. We removed 195 trees from the parks and cemetery and planted 199 replacement trees. Not much of a net gain. I tried not to run the numbers comparing the number of street trees lost to the 100 planting coupons we passed out.
I had my best Arbor Day celebration this decade when we planted 10 trees with all the classes at a new elementary school. That was a crazy but fun day.
Since 2010 our progress began to slip a bit. Pine wilt had just about wiped out pines in the parks and cemetery, budgets began to tighten, and the rains began to pass us by.
My crew continued our planting schedule for the first couple of years, and then as the drought continued, I realized we should scale back planting and spend staff time trying to save our existing trees. Park sprayers were converted to landscape/tree waterers and we bought a lot of new hose to string out to our trees.
This year will be our first attempt to return to our tree-planting schedule for the parks and cemetery. If all goes well and the rains come, maybe we can start filling in those long voids along our streets in years to come.
Managing and expanding our community forestry the past 30 years has been a rewarding challenge. Many circumstances are beyond our control, but we have maintained a commitment to the Tree City USA program and a healthy urban forestry, and our community is reaping the benefits.