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Postcard with Nevada Ave Median Trees (courtesy of Pikes Peak Library District)

Anyone driving through Colorado Springs might be very surprised to learn that we (supposedly) take pride in being a “Tree City USA.” Some of our oldest trees have suffered at our hands, and the current urban forest is looking quite bleak in places.

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Nevada Ave. Median in 1902 (notice the sprinklers running!) Photo courtesy Pikes Peak Library District

Colorado Springs is in an arid area on the edge of the plains, an area that doesn’t have very many native deciduous trees. Those that are native, like the scrub or Gambel oak, do not grow as tall or showy as the big shade trees everyone loves from the eastern part of the country. But as with many dry, western cities, that eastern look is what we have historically aimed for in our public plantings. Hence, all of our city trees have had to be planted and nearly all of them are not native to this area. Thus, they need extra care – especially WATER.

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A sad "spared" and heavily pruned elm

When I moved to the city 20 years ago, medians in the oldest part of town with their tall shade trees really did present a beautiful image and were the source of pride. You would look at these medians full of old American elm trees and say “Now this is what a ‘Tree City USA’ looks like!” (Oh, how I wish I’d thought to take a picture then!) But alas, today the medians are mere shadows of the beauties they were. We’ve not taken care of the trees and now many of them are gone and the remaining ones just look pitiful.

The Beginning
The problems actually started longer ago than you might think. When the trees were planted, people weren’t yet familiar with the problems of planting monocultures – that is, big plantings of exactly the same plant. In a monoculture, plants are more susceptible to problems caused by the predator insects who love them. Hence, large groups of American elms are very attractive to pests such as elm leaf beetle, and more devastating, elm bark beetles. Elm bark beetles are the catalyst behind the spread of Dutch Elm Disease – a fungal disease that somehow came in from Asia (despite the name) and has devastated native elms in America because they never evolved to have resistance to it. When I first moved here, efforts were underway to try to save the American elms in the medians with injections of fungicides. It was not 100% effective, but tree losses relatively few and far between.

2002
Then in 2002 we were in the middle of a drought. Residents were placed under mild water restrictions, and the city decided that watering street trees would have to be cut (basically as a public image policy so the city would look like it was “doing its part too”). For our mature trees already fending off disease, this was a terrible step. The trees were super stressed and succumbed much more easily. The first round of heavier tree removal happened in the year after that hot dry summer. Some that were removed had replacements planted in their places – this time a mix of trees such as honeylocust, new elm hybrids, and burr oak. We had learned our monoculture lesson. Supposedly we’d also learned that not watering the mature water-needing median trees was not an option.

2009 and 2010
Until 2009 and 2010. This time it wasn’t a lack of water but a city budget drought that would make us decide to stop watering the trees. Not just a public relations move this time, there simply was no money to pay for the water. This, on the heels of the 2002 damage, seems to have pushed the oldest trees in town beyond where they can be saved. And this year, with some budget restored for forestry, the money is unfortunately being used to cut down the many trees that suffered the most rather than for pruning or planting.

A visit to the median along Nevada Avenue in the block between Caramillo St and Del Norte St gives a snapshot of what is typical. Originally twenty four mature American elms grew in this median. A few were probably cut down prior to 2002 because all that you can see where they were is a sunken depression in the ground, no stump remains. After this summer, there are only twelve trees in the median (and three of those have been planted since the 2002 removals).

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Fresh stumps on Nevada Ave median between Caramillo and Del Norte

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Nevada Avenue median between Buena Ventura St and Caramillo St

The Future?
Perhaps new trees will be in the budget in the next few years, but I can’t help wondering….will we be committing to taking better care of these new trees than we did their predecessors? (Sep 30, 2011 UPDATE – Some new trees were planted in these medians this week! A few narrow leaf lindens and honeylocusts have stepped in to fill the gaps.)

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