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: James Wills Jr., Forestry Supervisor, City of Springfield
Springfield’s story began in the mid 1970s at an International Society of Arboricultural (ISA) conference where John Gall, a Springfield Parks Department employee, was introduced to a new program – Tree City USA. Gall saw the need to develop an urban forestry program, and Tree City USA was the method he used to do so.
At that time there was little to no public funding for tree planting. In fact, the lack of funding was so severe that the Parks Department sold $10,000 worth of walnut trees to a German company in order to fund new tree planting within the city parks. John saw Tree City USA as an opportunity to secure additional financial support for tree planting and maintenance.
Before Tree City USA, forestry duties were a function of the Parks Department; however, that fact would soon change. The Parks Department’s popular Memorial Tree Program helped to expose forestry operations to the community. At the same time, since the city did not proactively maintain street trees, the Parks Department’s forestry crew was often asked to perform work on trees in the city right of way. These two things, combined with the growing interest in the idea of an urban forestry program, led to a shift in how forestry operations were viewed. Because the Parks Department had dramatically expanded its forestry operations outside of parks, the city commission, city manager, and the park board came to an agreement that forestry work should be incorporated into the city Public Works Department.
Tree City USA is the foundation of our urban forestry program, which has grown significantly in the decades since we became a member. Our program has expanded from only four employees to a division of seven dedicated full-time staff. In its early days, the city’s Forestry Division operated on a reactive basis with minimal funding, equipment, and training. Now we have the workforce and resources available to proactively manage our extensive urban forest. We have implemented a tree pruning program and are able to remove hazardous trees, including ash trees affected by the emerald ash borer, before they become dangerous to the public. This maintenance is especially important given that Springfield’s aging canopy primarily consists of maple trees that were planted during the economic boom immediately following World War II. Many of these trees have outgrown the green space and consequently have reached their life expectancy. We are fortunate that the community continues to support and invest in the continual maintenance of the canopy while upholding the standards of Tree City USA.
Our urban forestry operations have evolved to include sustainable infrastructure. Outside of the aesthetic, air quality, and social benefits provided by Springfield’s nearly 16,000 street trees, their ability to intercept rainfall and reduce stormwater runoff has increased their value to the city. As a combined sewer overflow (CSO) community, we utilize trees and green infrastructure to reduce overflows. Therefore, our operations have expanded to incorporate additional tree planting and the installation and maintenance of sustainable infrastructure, such as bioretention cells, rain gardens, and self-watering planter boxes.
Trees in Springfield help to foster a sense of community camaraderie. For 40 years we have held annual Arbor Day celebrations at one of our local elementary schools to promote trees and their benefits. Elected officials, police and fire chiefs, and community leaders all join with local students to attend these events. Students assist in the planting of trees and are excited to watch them continue to grow year after year. In 2015, a red oak tree was planted on Arbor Day in memory of a young child who had tragically passed away. The family was honored to participate in the event during which the tree was planted on the school’s grounds.
Throughout the year I have the pleasure of speaking to a variety of local community organizations, such as neighborhood associations, seniors groups, and high school students. Topics for my discussions often include recommended trees, planting and pruning, litter, flowerbeds, pests, and an overview of the city’s Forestry Division. The audiences are always surprised at the wide scope of services the Forestry Division provides to the community.
Forty years ago, John Gall was the pioneer for developing an urban forestry program in Springfield, and he said it best, “What I am most proud of [during my time working for the city] is being one of the first Tree City USA members.” John had a vision for the future, and it has been fulfilled.
Like John, I take great pride in the City of Springfield being one of the original Tree City USA communities. It proves that for the past four decades, we have made it a priority to invest in a maturing and ever-growing urban forest. My goal is to bring our forest to its full potential by planting a diverse selection of trees while maintaining the amazing assets we have today. I hope to leave behind a healthy, beautiful, beneficial, and long-lasting urban forest that our community can continue to enjoy well into the future.
Please enjoy the following photos of 40 years of Tree City USA in Springfield, courtesy of James Wills Jr. and Rod Hatfield.