In a gymnasium, a man stands at a podium, surrounded by fifty tree saplings of different sizes and colors in pots. The two bleachers set up in the gym are full of people, with others standing behind and to the side, listening.
After winning a grant from the Arbor Day Foundation, the Bridgeport tree board prepares to give 50 trees out to local homeowners. Photo courtesy of Chrissy Land.


With the help of Tree City USA, some small towns are making big changes to the trees in their communities. They’re also gaining national recognition for their work.

Jerry Hardin, 75, of Gordon, wasn’t surprised when he found himself registering to become a state-certified arborist. In a way, his life had been leading him down that road for years. 

Hardin first started working with trees in the 1970s. After four years in the Navy, he moved to Chadron, where he took up a job clearing acres of trees from the nearby hills. Once the acres had been cleared, he worked with a friend at his tree removal company. 

Hardin left for Colorado, raising a family and working in power plants before retiring to his hometown of Gordon. Fifty years after his tree journey began, when the city decided to reorganize its tree board in 2020, Hardin figured it needed a certified arborist specifically trained in tree horticulture. 

“And I wasn’t really thinking about myself, but nobody else seemed to be too interested,” Hardin said. 

Hardin went to classes in Lincoln and Waverly to earn his certification. When he returned home, he noticed more about the trees in his community, like the risks of keeping unsafe trees and the benefits of certain species. It was a lot for him to take on. 

Luckily, Gordon had also just become the newest Nebraska member of Tree City USA.

A national program through the Arbor Day Foundation, Tree City USA provides a framework of support for cities to improve their trees. Many Nebraska towns have been members for decades, but in the 33 Tree City USA communities in western Nebraska, dedicated residents like Hardin have caused a new boom of award-winning growth in the region. 

Chrissy Land, the western community forester for the Nebraska Forest Service, works hand-in-hand with western Nebraska Tree City USA members. She said in the past few years, western Nebraska’s involvement has grown dramatically, with more projects and grants completed each year. Why? Land said a big piece of the puzzle is the ability to access better resources, something smaller towns often lack.

“I can go to one community, and I can learn something from them,” Land said. “You become a part of a much bigger thing. You’re part of a much bigger network.”

KrabGordonPic - Western Nebraska small towns emerge as new powerhouses of tree-planting
Gordon’s city administrator, city parks staff, and tree board surround a newly planted tree. It was provided by Nebraska Forest Service through the Free Trees for Fall program. Jerry Hardin is the fifth from the right, dressed in a denim shirt. Photo courtesy of Chrissy Land.

The communities have also been awarded for their hard work. Each year, the Arbor Day Foundation gives out Tree City USA Growth Awards, which mark exceptional achievement. When Land began working in 2019, Nebraska towns received six Growth Awards across the state. In 2021, which was the most recent year of awards, the state received 16 altogether. Eleven of them went to western Nebraska towns.

Land said these awards aren’t just about getting recognition but also allowing the towns to reflect on their progress.

“I think that’s very important for them to understand what their purpose is,” Land said. “They can have something tangible to look at and say ‘that’s what we did.’ This is why we exist for a reason. We are doing good. We are making change.”

KrabBayardPic - Western Nebraska small towns emerge as new powerhouses of tree-planting
Former Bayard mayor Greg Schmall reads an Arbor Day proclamation to the town’s elementary students. Official city recognition of Arbor Day is required to join Tree City USA. Photo courtesy of Chrissy Land.

Land said one of Tree City USA’s most important goals in education, like teaching students about Arbor Day or informing homeowners about the environmental and economic benefits of trees. Susan Myers is a geospatial engineer and a member of the tree board in Bridgeport. She says protection against stormwater is also an important benefit trees provide to a community.

“The tree itself is going to hold a lot of the moisture from the rain or the snow,” Myers said. “It’s going to slow down the runoff process of stormwater.”

Last summer, Myers participated in another resource Tree City USA provides Tree Plotter Nebraska, a statewide public database of trees. She and her husband spent their weekends and evenings logging trees with their phones, entering over 1,700 of them into the system. Land said this inventory is important for helping towns understand the health and status of their trees.

As of last year, it’s also important for a more timely reason: the Inflation Reduction Act, a massive federal law providing, among other things, funding for trees. Land says many western Nebraska towns are already great applicants, but an inventory is the cherry on top.

“Having this tree inventory basically gets these communities ready,” Land said. “It absolutely makes them a more competitive applicant.”

On the other hand, both Myers and Hardin said Land herself has had a major impact on the region’s success. 

“When she works with you, it’s like she lives in your community and cares about your students,” Myers said. “She’s very good at what she does and passionate about trees. It’s infectious, you know. I could go on and on.”

In fact, even though Jerry Hardin had worked with trees throughout his life, it was Chrissy who gave him the final push to become an arborist.

“She’s a go-getter,” he said. “She’s very motivational, and she sat in on one of our trainings, and she mentioned that arborist training was coming up. I started looking into it. I thought, you know, if we’re going to have a tree board, I think it would be good if someone in our community was a certified arborist.”

The rest was history.

Emma Krab is a senior journalism and English double major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a focus on environmental, political, health, and rural reporting. She is a student reporter at Nebraska Public Media, and has previously written for Platte Basin Timelapse and the Daily Nebraskan.