City Manager John Shirey (middle) is pictured with the Tree Hero award along with Sacramento Tree Foundation Executive Director Ray Tretheway, U.S. Rep. Doris Matsui, left, and Jun Yamada, Consul-General of Japan, right.

The City’s majestic downtown elm trees are beating the odds of survival because the City cares deeply about its roots to the past that earned Sacramento the distinction as a City of Trees in 1885. From a high of some 19,000, 2200 remain.  But the City is doing award-wining work to protect the surviving iconic elms from falling to Dutch elm disease, according to the Sacramento Tree Foundation. City Manager John Shirey accepted this year’s Tree Hero award from the Foundation on behalf of the City’s Urban Forestry division.

Sacramento’s roots are linked to elm trees. Settlers arrived in Sacramento searching for gold and then almost immediately started searching for something else – shade. Trees were sparse in the region, and we all know how hot Sacramento can be.  When choosing trees to plant, many people wanted something that reminded them of home on the east coast. Elms were the tree of choice. Elms were not only familiar, but they were a symbol of status as well.

The remaining elms lining our streets and shading our parks are what’s left of waves of elm plantings since 1849, along with waves of removals. The worst scourge was Dutch elm disease. The disease reached epidemic proportions in the U.S. in the 1930s and destroyed much of the elm forest on the east coast. It’s a fungal disease that affects primarily American and English elms. From the time the first symptoms are noticed a tree may be dead within two weeks. It made its way west and to California in the 1970s.

Beyond the disease, elms were being removed in large numbers due to old age or damage incurred by severe weather, unenlightened tree care practices, or removed because they simply fell out of favor with the public.  By 1982, Sacramento instituted the “Elm Tree Reforestation Program” which included efforts to replace American and English elms that died of natural causes with hybrid varieties of elms that looked similar, but were naturally resistant to the disease.

The City currently maintains approximately 2,200 American and English elms as street trees and park trees. Urban Forestry staff have several programs in place to address elm mortality and disease which include, inspections, laboratory testing for pathogens, mapping, pest management, modern pruning techniques, and public education and outreach. Last year Urban Forestry’s efforts reduced the amount of elm removals by 40 percent, compared to the average number of removals for the past five years.

The success comes as many of the largest elms in the city are more than 100 years old and are susceptible to loss with the fourth year of a severe drought. The challenge for Urban Forestry is, at best, to delay the end of the era of the elm.