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Wichita’s tree canopy is declining by 5,000 trees a year, officials say

Wichita’s tree canopy is declining, and the city’s quality of life with it, forestry officials say.

Wichita loses an average of 5,000 trees a year, Gary Farris, Wichita city arborist said.

The City’s forestry department works to remove dead and diseased trees from public areas, and attempts to replace them with new trees, Farris said, but they are limited to planting an average of 1,500 to 1,800 new trees a year due to their annual budget of about $384,000.

The department does have a nursery where they grow tree seedlings, but because it takes seedlings three or four years to mature enough for transplantation, they often buy older trees in bulk from vendors, said Troy Houtman, director of Park and Recreation.

The main forestry concern facing the city, state and nation, is the declining urban tree canopy, Farris said.

“That’s not sustainable,” Farris said. “We’re on a downward slope, and should we be concerned about that? Absolutely.”

An urban tree canopy is the amount of land in urban areas that is covered by trees when viewed from above. A good tree canopy can benefit an area’s ecosystem and quality of life covering a range of issues — including clean air and water; intercepting rainfall and pollutants; lowering air temperature, heating and electricity costs, and promoting “a clean and healthy environment,” Farris said.

Euel Reed, a master gardener and chair of the arboretum committee at K-State’s Extension and Research Center, said planting trees is about helping the community.

Reed has lead the arboretum committee for two years and said his team has planted about 2,400 trees in Wichita and surrounding cities.

Prior to joining the group, Reed said he didn’t know how to keep plants alive, so he wanted to learn about how and where to plant trees. Now, he has shrubs and flowers beds planted along his house, and several trees planted in his backyard.

“They’re things of beauty,” Reed said. “And trees do things people don’t realize they do.”

Reed strategically planted his trees on the west side of his yard, which shades his home and has helped lower the house’s temperature, and consequently, his electric bill.

“Cities that have more trees can lower the temperature by about 10 degrees,” Reed said. “It helps our environment — it helps the community.”

Nationally, the United States is losing an average 145,000 acres of tree cover every year, according to a 2018 USDA Forest Service study.

In Kansas, only 10% of land area is covered by tree canopy, according to the Kansas Forestry Service.

“If your canopy is declining, that represents a concern and a call to action,” Farris said.

Wichita has a total land area of 101,534 acres, with 23% of that land covered by urban tree canopy, according to a 2018 study of Wichita’s urban tree canopy assessment by the City and Kansas Forestry Service.

Tim McDonnell, community forester coordinator for Kansas Forestry Service, said the city’s tree canopy percentage isn’t bad compared to a similar-sized community, Des Moines, Iowa, which has 27% tree canopy, but “it’s a lot easier to grow trees up there than it is in Wichita,” McDonnell said.

McDonnell said the biggest reason for decline in Kansas is the Great Plains’ climate.

From 2011 to 2013 Kansas suffered from summer droughts that wiped out canopy cover, as well as created environmental stress, causing insect infestations and disease, McDonnell said.

“We’re still playing catch-up from those years of drought,” McDonnell said.

Certain insects carrying fungi and mold pathogens in Kansas are considered emerging threats to Kansas Forest Service.

The threats include Sudden Oak Death, a water mold pathogen that was recently detected in rhododendrons in June 2019; thousand cankers disease, a fungus carried by the walnut twig beetle that infects Walnut trees when it climbs through outer bark, killing tissue underneath; and Asian long-horned beetles, which feed on specific hardwood trees native to Kansas, leading to tree death.

“It’s just a tougher environment,” McDonnell said. “(We) deal with droughts in the summer and (a) hotter environment,” as well as suffering violent storms such as recent flooding, and ice storms in the winter, he added.

Even so, there are ways to continue to increase canopy cover, even in the Plains.

Farris said the answer to the decline is simple — “plant trees,” he said.

About 33% of Wichita’s current private and public land is unsuitable for tree planting due to parking lots, streets, buildings, and areas of bare soil and dry vegetation.

However, 34% is considered a potential planting area, according to a 2018 study of Wichita’s urban tree canopy assessment by the City and Kansas Forestry Service.

While the City of Wichita’s forestry department has worked to combat the decline by planting trees and removing diseased or dead trees in dangerous locations, Farris said the city can’t do it alone.

“In comparison to other cities, Wichita plants a lot of trees,” Farris said. “We are addressing it in a significant way, but there’s more that can be done and it’s going to take the public to do that.”

Over the past 33 years, Wichita has planted more than 389,000 trees as part of Tree City USA, a national tree planting program to promote better forestry in communities. Wichita is Kansas’ largest contributor to the program.

Other Kansas cities that have contributed to the program include Manhattan with 55,000, Topeka with 127,000, and Wynadotte County with 143,209. Kansas City has planted 441,545 trees on the Missouri side of the border over 31 years.

Farris said the more Wichita residents get involved in planting trees — large or small — on their own property, the better off Wichita and surrounding areas will be in terms of tree canopy, flood prevention and quality of life.

For those interested in planting trees on their property, Farris recommends researching trees that are best suited to an individual’s habitat.

In south central Kansas, Sedgwick County’s K-State Research and Extension office provides resources to help people pick trees well-suited to the local prairie conditions based on location, soil type and size.

For more information about tree planting, contact the Research and Extension Master Gardener hotline at 316-660-0190.

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