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Christopher Gray, a city tree worker, prunes a boulevard tree on Missoula’s west side in October 2010.

KURT WILSON/Missoulian

The good news about trees? The urban forest in Missoula is valued at nearly $71 million, according to the Parks and Recreation Department’s urban forester.

The not-so-good news? Many of the new young trees planted in Missoula aren’t taking root.

On Wednesday, the Missoula City Council Conservation Committee heard a report from urban forester Chris Boza about the state of trees in Missoula. One idea on tap to pay for needed work in the future is a new tree district similar to the streets or parks district, but it’s too early for an estimate of the cost.

At the meeting, council members noted the large inventory of municipal trees allows the city to begin working in earnest on a management plan for the long run. And as they move forward, Boza asked listeners to keep in mind the reality of keeping trees healthy.

“We are the benefactors of what took place many, many years ago,” Boza said. “And we are also the stewards for what transpires in our urban forest in the future.”

Among some highlights of the meeting and report:

• Watering trees needs to be a priority, according to several council members. It’s also a challenge to encourage some property owners to water their boulevard trees. “We seem to have that problem all over town with our trees not getting enough water,” Councilman Jon Wilkins said.

• The city has collected data on an estimated 74 percent of its tree population in the right of way, or 20,545 trees. It still needs to collect data from parks and greenways.

• Based on methodologies accepted by courts, the city’s trees are worth an estimated $70.7 million, Boza said: “The urban forest is an asset just like the rest of our public infrastructure.”

• One known problem in Missoula is many trees are reaching the end of their lifespan at the same time. An estimated 32 percent of the forest is made up of Norway maples, which are around the same age and could die off around the same time.

• Some 68 percent of the population is mixed age and species.

• Boza said another problem is young trees haven’t been planted in systematic ways, so he plans to develop standards. “How do we change that so the trees that we plant today will be around for future generations 60, 70 years down the road?”

Council member Marilyn Marler said she was excited Parks and Recreation had reached a point at which it had a solid inventory of the urban forest in place, and the information is a jumping-off point for action.

“Once we get the message out that the urban forest is not completely hunky dory, we want to empower people to do something,” Marler said.


John Snively, who lives in the University District where many of the Norway maples are planted, said he appreciates the thoughtfulness of the report on the urban forest even though he initially was skeptical. He advocated a “pay as you go” program such as a tree district, or some mechanism that addressed the cost over a time period of more than 20 years.

“I think finances will dictate that this be done over a very long time, and I’m thinking 30 to 50 years,” Snively said.

He also said people who don’t water their boulevard trees should face negative consequences, and the city should do more than just ask adjacent property owners to care for the trees. For instance, it could send water trucks around town and then bill the property owners who aren’t watering.

At the meeting, Boza mentioned ideas from other communities, such as training volunteers to do pruning of young trees. He said San Jose, Calif., started a program called The Tree Amigos to combat the destruction of saplings.

“We planted trees with young teenagers, and that, believe it or not, helped reduce the vandalism to the young trees,” Boza said.

He also offered recommendations for continued work on the urban forest, including the following:

• Completing the census.

• Developing a long-range management plan.

• Updating the tree ordinance so it’s consistent.

• Setting up consistent landscape design and tree maintenance standards.

• Providing “palliative care,” or deadwood removal, to 6,800 street trees, mostly Norway maples. This project would trim deadwood in excess of 2 inches at a cost of an estimated $180 per tree, or a one-time cost of $1.2 million, according to the report from Boza.

• Adding staff to accommodate a five- to seven-year pruning cycle, and more volunteers to help implement the management plan.

The tree inventory was completed with support from the nonprofit volunteer group Trees for Missoula, which provided $8,000 for data collection units, and with help from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, which offered $13,300 for inventory software, Boza said.

Reach Keila Szpaller at @keilaszpaller, at keila.szpaller@missoulian.com or at (406) 523-5262.

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Reporter for the Missoulian