When Kansas native Karen Sippy and her husband Brian drove through Missoula’s University District for the first time in 2003, the bare branches of the maple trees lining the streets gave her a sinking feeling.
Sippy told her husband the urban forest was dying. “And ... that’s what’s happening,” she said recently.
A 2013 citywide inventory of the city’s street trees found that 30 percent are Norway maples, almost all at the end of their lives. An artistic rendition in the city’s 2015 Urban Forest Master Management Plan, which Sippy helped write, showed a projected image of Missoula’s canopy in 2035 if the city continued its existing methods of maintaining its trees.
“It’s a strong graphic,” she said. “It is like the forest is gone.”
But Sippy, a 51-year-old former middle school teacher, is doing everything she can to make sure that does not become reality.
As executive director and a founding member of the nonprofit advocacy group Trees for Missoula, Sippy seeks out donations from wealthy, supportive friends for projects that make a difference for city trees.
So far, Trees for Missoula has raised more than $60,000, mostly donations from Sippy’s friends’ charitable foundations. But she and her husband have also given to the cause.
One quarter of the money helped the city purchase two electronic imaging devices to measure internal tree health. The nonprofit also pays for protective green water bags for the city’s young trees and educational material for property owners.
But perhaps its deepest impact has been the volunteers. Trees for Missoula has recruited and trained 25 people through its Volunteers in Pruning program, who have pruned more than 600 public trees — something the city doesn’t have the resources to keep up with.
Missoula’s urban forester, Chris Boza, said the city is grateful for all the help that Sippy and other volunteers provide.
“The formative pruning, aside from proper planting, is the most important step or phase in the life of a young tree,” he said. “That’s where they assist us the most.”
The volunteers also become built-in tree promoters, and under Sippy’s direction, they reach out to city councilors and other citizens to share the importance of caring for the city trees.
“They are advocates, and that’s something that I can’t do,” Boza said. “Karen has the ability to speak freely. As an employee, I have to choose my words.”
Boza, 58, took the job after the 2013 city tree inventory and helped the city develop its first forest management plan. After 16 years as an urban forester in Chico, California, followed by nearly five years in that role for Hayden, Idaho, Boza brought needed experience.
“The urban forester position has been a revolving door since the late 1980s,” Sippy said. “The files were a mess. It’s quite a job.”
Since the adoption of the 2015 urban city plan, the Missoula City Council has passed measures doubling Boza’s workforce, from two certified arborists to five. It also supported funding new trucks, chippers and lifts.
That happened “because we could prove the need,” Sippy said. “You can’t get support from City Council if you don’t have the information.”
On a recent afternoon, Sippy swung into Boza’s office to catch up after he returned from a two-week vacation. Their conversation quickly turned serious as Boza told Sippy a utility project was headed for final approval at that night’s City Council meeting. None of the plans discussed street trees.
Sippy pulled out her cellphone and sent a message to her ward City Council member, Jordan Hess.
“How do we get Public Works to consider our urban forest in their projects?”
“She is one of my favorite constituents,” Hess said. “There’s people that take an interest in particular areas and get involved, but Karen’s kind of one-of-a-kind in her level of involvement.”
The City of Missoula gave Sippy its 2017 Neighborhood Volunteer of the Year award, in part for her work with Missoula’s trees. As treasurer of the Grant Creek Trail Association since 2006, she was also instrumental in raising funds and moving forward the Grant Creek Trail that now snakes past her neighborhood.
Sippy’s love of trees began at her childhood home in Kansas. “I could draw out that property and draw out every tree was and tell you exactly what that tree was,” Sippy said. “It was just a part of conversations. You would always say ‘that maple tree’ or ‘that pin oak.’”
Sippy majored in education at the University of Kansas, where she met her husband, Brian, an eye doctor.
During a six-year stint in Atlanta, Sippy enrolled in the city’s master gardener training program. There, she soaked up tree knowledge, and ideas she would later implement in Missoula, like the green “ooze” bags for young trees.
It was education for her own amusement then. She didn’t foresee a future in urban forestry. When her husband finally finished his medical training, Sippy thought she’d be ready to take it easy.
She never did. “My brain is moving and going and I don’t want it to stop,” she said.
In addition to her roles with Trees for Missoula and the Grant Creek Trails Association, Sippy recently joined the committee working on the city’s long-term sidewalk plan.
“So I can make sure the urban forest is part of that plan,” she said.