Shedding light on Main Street shade

By: 
JENNY GESSAMAN
Reporter

DNRC Service Forester stands next to a scar he pointed out on one of Lewistown’s Main Street trees this July.

Photo by Jenny Gessaman

The weather’s warm, the event calendar’s full and downtown Lewistown is in the midst of another Montana summer. The season, combined with Montana Department of Transportation’s plan to replace Main Street sidewalks next year, has some residents wondering about the future of Main Street’s trees.


Starting at the roots
The paved lanes of Main Street are known by another name for the MDT: Montana Highway 200.

Montana law gives MDT the right-of-way on state highways, meaning the department is responsible for the strip of land being used as a road. It’s not that simple when it comes to the trees, though.

The state was released from responsibility by an encroachment permit, according to MDT’s Area Maintenance Superintendent Ken Hamblen. Signed in 1994, the permit approved trees on the state’s right-of-way but absolved MDT from responsibility.

It was filled out and signed by then Lewistown Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Billie Hanzel. She cited beautification as the permit’s purpose and requested an indefinite time period.

Current Executive Director Connie Fry reported the Chamber is no longer involved with any Main Street trees.

“I know nothing about that,” she said. “I started here in 2003, so that [the permit] was before my time, and I have no information on those trees.”

Fry added the organization’s scope was larger than Lewistown, and promoted entire areas instead of focusing on site-specific projects.

So, if the trees don’t belong to the Chamber, whose are they?


Branching out
While Lewistown values its outdoors, the Main Street trees don’t fall under the City’s jurisdiction, according to City Manager Holly Phelps. She said City staff had pruned problem branches, but added the trees did not belong to municipality.

“I’m not aware that we’ve authorized maintenance of trees or something like that, but it’s not our right-of-way,” she said. “We can’t authorize those actions unless we have power over that.”

Phelps did not know if anyone was caring for the trees, but said some organizations try to maintain the downtown area.

This includes the Lewistown Downtown Association, a volunteer group focused on preserving, protecting and promoting its namesake. Chair Chris Cooler said while her organization did not take responsibility for the trees, they had pruned them for the LDA’s downtown cleanups.

Individuals are not claiming the trees, either. Tammy Eckhardt and her husband purchased the Empire Building last summer, and she opened the Lewistown’s Sew Pieceful quilt shop last fall.

“We obviously thought the trees made [the location] more enticing,” she said. “It was beautiful, the trees are beautiful.”

Eckhardt doesn’t view the trees as hers, but has been forced to prune branches for scaffolding and pedestrian traffic. She also works to keep the tree debris outside, and seasonally sweeps leaves, blossoms and twigs from her entryway.

Raelynn Howell has a more hands-on approach. Property maintenance is part of her job as manager of the Magic Diamond Casino.

“I am in charge of making sure the trees aren’t hanging too low, so they’re not hitting people or vehicles, and making sure they’re still kind of nice looking,” she said.

Howell doesn’t know who owns the trees, but voluntarily maintains them to preserve the casino’s appearance and accessibility.

Joan Thomas has no idea either, despite opening The Hub a decade ago. She wants to find out, and she wants to have a say in their future.

“I don’t think I own them, but I don’t know how you can have street trees without some kind of understanding with the property owners,” she said.

It’s hard to have a say, though, when there’s no conversation, and it’s one Thomas believes need to happen. She could recall several times others’ disregard damaged the trees, mainly through bad pruning.

“I would like [there to be] trees on Main Street, and I would like to know who’s going to care for them,” she said. “If nobody’s really advocating for them, there’s no point in having them: They won’t make it.”


Planning for the growing season
Any answers need to be found soon: The sidewalks surrounding Main Street’s trees are slated for demolition next summer, according to MDT Lewistown Maintenance Chief Ron Pederson.

“We’re going to do all new sidewalk and curbing, as well as a mill and fill, on Main Street,” he said.

While the project is on the calendar, Pederson said the finer details, including Main Street trees, are still being finalized.

“I’m not sure that was discussed. It’s all still in planning,” he said.

The project has spurred some of Lewistown to take a deeper look into the future of the trees. Cooler and the LDA have started the groundwork for an ongoing maintenance and care plan.

“We’re just looking for resources to begin the process of what needs to be done,” she said.

Cooler, along with a City representative and community members, has been meeting with a DNRC forester over the past six months. Meetings have looked at the current condition of the trees, as well as options for the trees when the sidewalks project starts.

“Some of the trees downtown are in the process of dying, some have already died and some are just in really tough shape,” Cooler said. “Part of the plan is looking at alternatives for them.”

Josh Stoychoff, the DNRC Service Forester helping Cooler, has a rough idea of the options. His list is short and simple: remove the trees, keep them or replace them.

Stoychoff said on one hand, the trees might be creating problems for business owners.

“Lewistown has lacked proper tree maintenance in their downtown, which has led to issues with signage, branches and low limbs,” he said. “Sidewalk upheaval is always a big issue. People like to jump to that, but I like to point out that the trees were planted wrong.”

Bad planning is also limiting the trees’ oxygen intake, and the lack of maintenance is creating problems for the trees themselves.

“With branches, if you take them off when they’re big, it creates a large wound susceptible to rot and generally creates more problems in the tree,” he said.

Leaving the trees wouldn’t address complaints or questions, but Stoychoff said it would preserve downtown’s current look.

Replacing the trees is the healthiest option, according to Stoychoff. He said although many Main Street trees have survived, few are healthy.

“I like to consider trees as, ‘Do they survive or do they thrive?’” he said. “What I’d like to see is trees not just surviving downtown, but thriving.”

The last option would require new groundwork, however.

“Trees grow, that’s one of the things they do,” he said. “They get bigger, and you have to account for that. This option comes with the need to manage trees, so we don’t end up with the same issues we face today.”

For now, the future of Main Street’s trees is uncertain.

“We’re still just looking right now,” Cooler said. “It’s our job to see what happens, but I don’t think it’s our job alone to decide what does happen. Things haven’t been decided.”

On his part, Stoychoff is staying hopeful.

“I think there’s going to be a resurgence in downtown, and I think trees should be a part of that,” he said. “You’re searching for trees for shade every time you’re down here.”

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