Tree Talk: We want your feedback on presence of Siberian elm in Taos

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Siberian elm (Ulmus pumila) was originally introduced to New Mexico under the name “Chinese elm” beginning in the early 1900s. Much to our confusion, the original name has more commonly stuck, despite noble efforts otherwise. 

It was brought to the cities, towns and agricultural landscapes of New Mexico, promising tolerance to a harsh climate and requiring few resources to thrive. It was put to use in windbreaks and soil stabilizations to fulfill street and yard tree functions. It often grew where nothing else would grow. It outperformed expectations admirably and is now so successful that its presence is commonplace. 

Many people believe that this tree has proven itself a winner and deserves its hard-earned place in the New Mexican landscape. But like other introduced species that naturalize and succeed beyond expectation, Siberian elm is now contested and its presence is hotly debated. Unintended Siberian elm stands form thickets along fence lines and waterways, persist in fields and vacant lots and spread carpets of seedlings across yards and gardens every spring. 

This abundant tree clearly needs to be managed in our towns and landscapes, but New Mexicans are not sure how to approach it. I have initiated a research project that involves gathering information on the native habitat and biological characteristics of the Siberian elm, the story of its introduction to New Mexico, current spread across our communities, benefits that it is providing, ecological implications of its presence and the community attitudes about all of the above.  

A concurrent project through the New Mexico State Forestry Urban and Community Forestry Program is collecting tree survey data and historical background information on its presence in communities. My aim is to consolidate this data and provide location-specific management solutions and effective tools to help communities work with this tree where it is desired and suppress it where it is not. Until New Mexican communities can actively address the spread of this extremely hearty and adaptable tree, it will continue to excel regardless of the opinions toward its presence.

As a resident of Taos and a member of the Taos Tree Board, I am most interested in the situation right here at home. We are making progress in understanding the current state of the entire community forest in the town of Taos. In recent tree surveys, we learned that Siberian elm represents approximately 30 percent of the tree canopy in the Taos Historic District. This means that a third of our community forest consists of trees that we may or may not want to be there. 

The choices regarding Siberian elm are:

1) Let the trees persist in a strong and self-sustaining role in our community tree canopies. 

2) Remove all trees as soon as possible to return the landscape to more native characteristics.

3) Nurture the present trees, remove the nuisance stands and gradually replant with more suitable species.

4) More information would be required to make a decision.

Help us come to a decision by choosing one of the four options above. We would like to derive solutions that represent the measured sentiments of the Taos community toward these trees. Email your choice to taostreeboard@gmail.com. We will publish the results of those who respond next month. 

Although trees compete with other private and public responsibilities for physical and financial resources and ultimately the decisions lie with the property owners, the community forest in its entirety is an immensely valuable community resource. 

If you would like to share your opinions in greater detail or are interested in participating in the Taos Community Tree Care Project, email taostreeboard@gmail.com.

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