As kids head back to school and the leaves begin to change from green to shades of gold, red and orange, it's clear that summer is ending and fall is nearly here. In that spirit, the city will soon honor the 2014 Tree of the Year.

The award was conceived in 1988 to raise public awareness for the trees throughout Ashland and reward the people who take care of them. Ashland places a strong importance on its trees. The city has been named Tree City USA by the Arbor Day Foundation for 29 years.

"Trees add so much value and benefits to the community," says Michael Pina, assistant city planner and code compliance officer. "Our tree canopy provides energy-conserving shade, habitats for local wildlife, erosion control, privacy and is aesthetically pleasing.

"The contest also recognizes the hard work that citizens put into the trees to maintain them and keep them looking beautiful." 

The contest originally ran in the spring to coincide with Arbor Week celebrations. Ashland's Tree Commission moved the contest to the fall in 2003 in order to recognize the winning tree in two different ways.

"Trees in fall have their own unique beauty to the rest of the year," Pina says. "We want people to be able to see the winning tree in that light. Then we have the separate ceremony and plaque dedication during our Arbor Week events."

Last year's winning tree was a Fremont cottonwood at 380 Clay St. The tree — which is estimated to be more than 100 years old — received a great deal of attention earlier in the year. City planners had intended to cut the tree down to make the lot it occupied more developer-friendly. Residents successfully petitioned the Tree Commission to save the tree and, when fall rolled around, voted to make the cottonwood Tree of the Year.

Ashland residents nominated 12 trees when the commission opened up nominations for this year's tree in August. 

"I gave the nominees to the commission during their meeting last week," Pina says. "Now they will go out, see the trees, and pick five or six to put on the ballot."

Pina says they hope to have the ballot ready to print in the next "City Source" newsletter that circulates with city utility bills next week. The ballots also will be available online for the first time in the contest's history.

"Last year, we circulated the ballots the same way we always had, using the 'City Source,' ballots in city hall and printed in the Daily Tidings," Pina says. "We received some feedback that we might not be reaching certain groups with this method, like students at Southern Oregon University. 

"We're still going to circulate the ballots in the old way, but our hard-working GIS Department created an online version of the ballot that will have pictures, descriptions and locations of the trees. It's a great way to reach a whole new segment of the population."

Once voting opens, it will run through October with the announcement of the winner in November. 

Photos and locations of all 26 trees are online at www.ashland.or.us. You also can download a copy of the Tree Commission's "Street Tree Guide." The guide offers localized information about tree care to possibly help your tree get nominated for Tree of the Year 2015.

Email reporter Ian Hand at ihand@dailytidings.com or call him at 253-722-4071. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/IanHand_DT.