Martin Kidston

It was back in 1906 when Missoula established a sprinkling district to suppress the dust on unpaved streets during the summer months. The districts were enough to give life to a small urban forest. The trees took root, the buds burst open and the canopy grew.

The value of trees had been discovered.

And so it went that a second district was established in 1909. It marked Missoula’s first street and landscape district created entirely to help finance neighborhood improvements. Each lot within the district was charged around $138 to cover the costs. That’s nearly $3,300 when calculated to today’s dollars.

It was a big investment then and it remains a big investment now. But early Missoula residents saw the value of their endeavor and they forged ahead. The results created the legacy we enjoy today, that being one of the shadiest and greenest cities in the northern Rocky Mountains.

Talk about vision.

But as Chris Boza, the city’s urban forester noted, trees are living things and they don’t last forever. The last Norway maple planted by our predecessors between 1908 and 1936 is expected to die within the next 20 years. The burden is now on current residents to ensure Missoula’s green legacy endures when the 22nd century dawns 84 years and 249 days from now.

“Right now, we have a little over 1,300 trees that are either dead or in poor condition,” Boza told the City Council last week. “At the rate the current Norway population is aging and dying out, in five to 10 years, a very large portion of those trees will be gone.”

Luckily, it seems most Missoula residents understand the value of trees. It’s probably why the new Urban Forest Master Management Plan received the unanimous support of the City Council in last week’s vote.

It was a smart vote if a recent survey conducted by the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana is any indication. Ninety-five percent of respondents placed the beauty of trees as their highest value.

Ninety-three percent said trees made neighborhoods more enjoyable, and 92 percent praised the shade trees provide. When was the last time you saw more than nine out of 10 Missoula residents agree any one thing, let along three things?

But the intrinsic value of a big green tree is about where the agreement ended. As one might expect, support for trees diminished slightly when funding became part of the equation.

“The support is high when it’s simply requiring one to encourage funding (76 percent),” the survey found. “As it gets more specific as to how to fund public trees – such as separate revenue sources (53 to 56 percent) or higher taxes (47 percent) – the number of residents, while still supportive, decreases.”

This decrease in support was also evident on the City Council. Several members expressed unwavering support for saving and growing the urban forest. Others supported the effort in concept, though their enthusiasm dimmed when the cost entered the discussion.

Carrying out the new urban forest management plan won’t be cheap, Boza admitted. Phase one of the plan, which is set to begin next year, will cost $494,000. When phase three kicks off in 2020, the costs increase to $1.6 million.

But those costs will diminish over time as the program gets rolling and the trees - 1,000 new ones planted each year – take root. And there are creative ways to pay for the effort, including a half-cent increase on gasoline tax.

A gallon of gasoline that now costs $2.28 would increase to $2.29 a gallon under such a proposal, or less than 17 cents for most every tank. That hardly breaks the bank. A city-wide tree district is also an option.

Whatever route is taken, they’d all be better than the worst option of all, and that’s to maintain the status quo. At least the City Council agrees on that.

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