Ellensburg Tree City USA – 30th Anniversary

By Gordon Crane, City Arborist

Ellensburg, a small city (pop. 18,310) in central Washington, has the longest running “Tree City USA” designation in Washington State, first awarded in 1983.

Ellensburg has been a Tree City USA for 30 years.
Ellensburg City Hall. The City of Ellensburg has been designated as a Tree City USA for the past 30 years.

The majority of the approximately 5,500 street trees in Ellensburg are located in the original 1880’s vintage core of the city. About 500 street trees were planted and are maintained by the City, mostly in the Central Business District and along several arterial routes.

Street tree maintenance is funded through the city’s general fund, with the Street Department and Parks Department sharing maintenance responsibilities, including trimming trees for vehicular and sign clearance.

Public Works Department tree planting is usually associated with roadway improvement projects, and Central Business District improvements. One major ongoing project is to replace 1980’s vintage 3’x3’ sidewalk planters with 5’x8’ planters, and install irrigation systems to tree locations that lack irrigation.

Gordon Crane shows an expanded planting area with a new tree in the Downtown Business District
Ellensburg City Forester Gordon Crane next to an expanded planting area and new tree in the Central Business District

In the last few years, the Parks Department has planted more than 150 trees at a new park and at two riparian area projects, in coordination with multiple organizations including the Mid-Columbia Fisheries Enhancement Group and citizens groups. The Reecer Creek Floodplain Restoration project enhanced nearly a mile of trout, steelhead and salmon rearing habitat in Ellensburg’s Reecer Creek, a tributary to the Yakima River, which included re-vegetating riparian and upland areas with native trees, shrubs and grasses.

The City encourages citizens to plant trees in the street right of way. To encourage tree planting, the Public Works Department has an annual Arbor Day free tree giveaway program in April. Over 29 years, through 2012, the City has received 432 Arbor Day tree applications, and 666 trees were planted.

Two trees from the original 1983 Arbor Day tree program.
Two trees from the original 1983 Arbor Day tree program.

Trees offered through the Arbor Day free tree program are available on a first come, first served basis. In essence, the City approves the type of tree and its planting location, and pays for the tree.  The applicant picks up the tree at the nursery, plants it, and is responsible for water and tree maintenance.

Applicants can select from a list of trees provided by Public Works; the trees are available at several local nurseries. Public Works staff reviews the applicant’s preferred type of tree and location in the field, and issues the permit if the type of tree desired and chosen location are compatible. As always, right tree, right location! Included in the application packet is basic information on how best to plant the tree, and a reminder to remove any stake and guy supports after one growing season, or at most after one year. The applicant then may pick up the tree at the nursery and plant it. The nursery invoices the City from a copy of the application.

The City does not track survival rates for the Arbor Day trees, but estimates survival rate is around 70 percent. The success rate is best where the trees are planted in well-maintained yards or the adjacent planting strips.

arbor day 30th 1
Most trees visible on this block of 2nd Avenue in Ellensburg were planted through the Arbor Day tree program. photo: Gordon Crane