Maintaining Kalispell’s urban forest a constant challenge

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A row of five em trees ravaged by Dutch elm disease stand along 2nd Avenue East on Tuesday afternoon, July 10, in Kalispell.

From dealing with wind damage to Dutch elm disease, regular pruning needs and backed-up requests for new tree plantings, Kalispell’s “urban forest” has been keeping the city’s Parks and Recreation Department busy.

Windstorms earlier this summer forced the parks crew to strike a balance between tree-branch cleanup and tree removal — which lasted for weeks after the storms — and other summer duties such as cleaning and mowing city parks.

Crews were “spread a little thin,” said Mike Baker, Kalispell’s director of parks and recreation.

“Our goal is to diversify a bit more and be able to have people available for the forestry portion of our program year-round,” Baker said.

But doing that will take time and money, possibly above and beyond the forestry assessment Kalispell charges property owners.

The assessment generates about $200,000 a year to maintain the city’s urban forest.

At one point years ago, Kalispell aimed to prune its trees at least once every seven years, Baker said. That goal still is a long way off.

“We want to develop a forestry program where we can address these tree calls, the branches hanging over sidewalks, the trees that need pruned or removed,” Baker said. “There is a whole gamut of stuff out there that we need to do.”

A new stump grinder that’s set to be purchased in this year’s budget should help crews work more efficiently. Used to grind out the stump after a tree is removed, the old piece of equipment dates back to 1956.

Keeping up with the number of tree plantings needed to both maintain the urban forest and fill holes is a long-term challenge.

“We had 2,000 vacant tree spots and last year planted 53, so as you can imagine it’s a slow process, and one we have to spread around the entire community so everyone benefits,” Baker told the Kalispell City Council during a budget work session earlier this summer.

“It would be nice if we could just go in and replant large amounts of trees, but we can’t.”

Kalispell, recognized as a Tree City for the last 25 years, has been making progress.

A two-year waiting list to get a tree planted has been whittled down to about one year, Baker said. That was done in part by having people who request tree plantings assume some of the cost.

“We’ve offered a program where we can actually get trees for people at our cost, then we plant them if they’re willing to pay for the tree. We’ve had a number of people take advantage of that program, I think 25 this last go-round,” Baker said.

This year’s budget also has the city continuing to remove American elms killed by Dutch elm disease.

Over five years, about 250 American elms have been removed. Up until this year, the city had relied on $100,000 in state grant money to remove the trees, a cost that now will be shifting back to the city.

“Those large trees are expensive to remove,” Baker said.

American elms once were the second-most-prevalent species of tree along the city’s streets, with 387 trees.

That’s far behind Norway maples, the dominant species with 2,556 trees that make up nearly 50 percent of the city’s tree inventory.

“What we have been doing is inventorying [the American elms] every year and the ones that have green on them are good for the next year ... If there’s any green, even one branch, they’re OK,” Baker said. “Then we check them again the next year and if there’s no green, they’re put on the list” for removal.

One American elm slated to come down this year is the tree at the northeast corner of the Museum at Central School.

Old photos of the school, built in the 1890s, show what’s believed to be a much younger version of the tree as far back as 1911.

If no other grant funds are secured, costs related to Dutch elm disease will take a significant chunk out of the city’s urban forestry budget for years to come.

“Realistically, I think we’re probably looking at the next 10 years,” Baker said.

A new species of tree is planted in place of every American elm removed.

“We’ve got a lot of balls in the air right now,” Baker said. “We’re doing the best we can. We’re still protecting our urban forest, but it’s going to need more attention, and that’s critical to be able to guarantee these trees will be around for a long time.”

Reporter Tom Lotshaw may be reached at 758-4483 or by email at tlotshaw@dailyinterlake.com.

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