Kids from South Point Elementary in East Grand Forks celebrated Arbor Day on Tuesday by planting seven trees — one for each fourth-grade class.

The classes made their way to a patch of grass between their school and a nearby baseball field. The Greater Grand Forks Parks and Recreation Department had two speakers and a microphone set up and ready to go.

The Greater Grand Forks community has been named a “Tree City USA” by the Arbor Day Foundation for 43 years. One of the criteria for being named a “Tree City” is celebrating Arbor Day — something Parks and Rec has done every year by rotating tree-planting events between Grand Forks and East Grand Forks elementary schools.

With the sun shining and a cool breeze whipping through the crowd, Reid Huttunen, the East Grand Forks Parks and Recreation superintendent, announced the beginning of the celebration by jubilantly yelling into his microphone, “Happy Arbor Day! Raise of hands, who knows what Arbor Day is?”

Several kids shouted out “planting trees!” as they threw their hands into their air hoping to be called on. Huttunen smiled and responded, “we’re going to learn all about trees today.”

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Huttunen then introduced Chip Shea of Shea’s Nursery and Landscaping in Grand Forks, saying he’s here to “make sure our yards are green and happy.” Shea grabbed the attention of the restless fourth-graders by asking the kids “why do we plant trees?” The students shouted various answers — making paper, creating oxygen, providing food and serving as habitat for wildlife.

"Trees are very important to sustain how we live on this planet,” Shea said as he paced in front of the young crowd. “That is one of the reasons why we celebrate Arbor Day.”

Sensing the crowd may have been growing less attentive, Shea then exclaimed: "Who wants to get their hands dirty?” Almost instantly, numerous hands shot into the air. Shea invited Huttunen back to the stage, who split up the kids and directed his coworkers to carry the young trees to the pre-dug holes.

Before the students left, Shea provided a final thought.

“Most trees will outlive us,” he said. “So, when you guys get older, when you come back to visit, you can always remember where you planted these trees and you can come out and take a look at them and see how they’ve grown.”

Emerald ash borer problem

The Parks and Rec Department provided maple and oak trees for the kids. However, according to Huttunen, 40 years ago ash trees were “the cheapest and easiest” trees to acquire. Nowadays, the department is steering clear of ash trees due to a growing problem — the emerald ash borer.

According to the Arbor Day Foundation, the tiny insect was first discovered in 2002 near Detroit after entering the country in wood packing material from China. Though small, the emerald ash borer has decimated ash trees across the country and into Canada, with more than 40 million trees destroyed in Michigan alone.

Considering the large number of ash trees in East Grand Forks and Grand Forks, Huttunen said the Parks and Rec Department is trying to put a plan in place to combat the bug. He said the department is being proactive by removing damaged ash trees instead of trying to “just save a limb.”

“If it’s one we can (remove) now, it’s one less we’ll have to do in maybe, if its 10 years, or whatever it may be, if emerald ash bore does make it here,” Huttunen said.

The Parks and Rec Department also is planting a wider variety of trees to help address the problem. According to Huttunen, the department is no longer planting ash trees, and “hasn’t been for a number of years.”

To spot a potentially diseased tree, Huttunen says to look for ash trees that look as though they’re “suffocating.” He says leaves will begin to fall off the tree starting at the crown and the bark will begin to peel, as if the tree is “dried up.”

Huttunen wants the public to know that emerald ash borer is not currently an issue for the community, and likely won’t be for many years.

“It’s something we’re taking steps for a planning perspective of knowing that it could get here,” he said. “And when it does, we want to be prepared for it.”