April 02, 2002 11:00 pm

By T.L. Petersen

Observer Staff Writer

He isnt quite Johnny Appleseed, traveling the country planting apple trees, but Brian Kelly probably understands the thinking of the legendary tree-planter.

Im passionate about it, Kelly said of his involvement with La Grandes trees over the past six years as the citys urban forestry consultant.

I truly love trees. They fascinate me. I keep learning more and more about trees, about different kinds, about pruning.

Also, I keep learning about urban forestry, and its as much about people as trees, he said.

This week is Kellys big week, sort of Christmas and the Fourth of July rolled into one. Its Arbor Week.

While most of La Grandes trees are just getting ready to start bursting open with buds, Kelly will be leading ceremonies at 4 p.m. Thursday at Eastern Oregon State University to honor one of the oldest surviving trees in the community, the Baker black locust planted in about 1883 by James Baker.

Bakers tree is still relatively healthy, a testament to survival when most urban trees have shortened lifespans because of the stresses of growing in a city environment.

The locust also has lost a few branches to the locust bore pest, Kelly said, but caregivers at Eastern Oregon University keep the tree watered and treated, keeping it in good shape for its age.

For Kelly, the locust is only one of hundreds of trees in La Grande that fall under his care.

He currently is in the process of inventorying all the trees in the public rights of way, along streets and in public places, he said. When hes finished, each tree will be known by its species, its size and condition.

Kelly chuckles, admitting that people already are asking him when hes going to take a break and stop planting trees around town.

It might be worth getting an answer.

Since 1996, Kelly has overseen the planting of about 750 trees in

La Grande. But remember, each year he says the city loses about 100 trees that have to be removed because they are hazardous, diseased or problem trees.

In 2000, for example, about 50 black locust trees had to be removed from La Grande streets because they had been fatally damaged by the locust bore.

Nearly everyone, Kelly adds, wants to see trees replaced along a city street when an old one has to go.

Replacing trees is part of Kellys art as a college-trained forester. He plants trees in La Grande with an eye toward species variety, fall colors and spring blooms. In areas with lots of overhead wires, Kelly likes to plant shorter, wider-spreading trees.

The concept is to see trees as green infrastructure, Kelly said. Trees are an important part of what makes an area livable.

People moving to La Grande often comment on the number and size of the trees. With an average urban life of about 30 years, replacing and planning for new trees becomes a key part of urban planning.

Trees, Kelly believes, also are part of the whole picture of economic development, subliminally sending the message that La Grande is a settled, well-taken-care-of place.

Every urban forestry program is different, Kelly adds. If it is successful, it will be well-suited to the community. Urban forests are different throughout the state, he notes, pointing to different communities such as Pendleton and Baker City.

Kelly said about 20 to 25 people regularly volunteer to help care for La Grandes forest. He thinks about them, and the difference 150 years can make whenever he stops at Gangloff Park on La Grandes west entrance and looks at the canopy of trees that shade the city every summer.

A hundred and fifty years ago there were some cottonwoods along the river and occasionally a pine or fir around. But not many. Then they moved the river. Most of the citys trees came in for planting on trains.

Now look around.

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