Deep within Missoula's poplar tree farm off Mullan Road, crews are finishing up work clearing a 2.5-acre plot of land.
More trees will be planted in the fall and again in the spring at the site, but they won't be more of the hybrid poplars, which help absorb chemicals from the sewage plant that are harmful to the Clark Fork River.
Instead, a variety of species that are either native to the area, near-native or climate resilient will be propagated.
Missoula has had a difficult time sourcing trees that fit into its urban forestry needs and is running into a problem — many of the Garden City's established trees are getting older and aging out, meaning they will soon die.
A fair number of those older trees do not fit particularly well within the city's urban ecosystem.
Now with federal money and state help, Missoula is going to begin growing its own trees for a variety of projects. In three to five years, some Missoulians may even get a tree of their own, while others will go to parks and green spaces.
"It is important to know we're losing our urban forest in Missoula," said Morgan Valliant, Missoula's Ecosystems Services superintendent. "It is aging out and there are a lot of even-aged species that are (on the verge) of collapse."
The project is funded by a grant from the federal government, specifically from the 2021 State Urban Forest Resilience Grant Program. It is $94,000 to be used over two years and is being matched by the state.
Marie Anderson, an urban forestry specialist for Missoula, and Jamie Kirby, Montana's urban forest coordinator, were essential to making the grant, which comes from the U.S. Forest Service, happen.
"The Biden administration has been releasing lots of funding for grant projects across the board and we were lucky enough to hear about this one," Anderson said. "Jamie and I immediately had a quick phone conversation and we were like, we've got this, we can do this ... we literally put this together in about a week.
"I emailed all the city foresters I could think of and I was like, 'Do you have a project that could fit this theme of tree equity, resilience' — those were were the buzzwords and Missoula was the first one to bite," Kirby said.
In addition to Missoula, Kalispell and Helena are also involved with the plant propagation project. Sourcing the trees locally will allow for a better stock of trees the city can use and will save on emissions and costs associated with sourcing the trees out of state.
A variety of tree species have been proposed, including western larch, subalpine larch, ponderosa pine and possibly Douglas fir and Kentucky coffee trees, among others. The seedlings come from the state's tree nursery, which is located in Missoula.
They will be planted at the site of the poplar tree grove and will eventually be harvested as saplings to be planted around the city.
Prior to the project, a map was created and areas that have been underserved in regard to trees will be targeted for the saplings, as a major focus is equity. An added benefit is that having more trees directly correlates with mitigating effects from climate change as well as positively influencing health, the grant application said.
The city is also planning to hire an ambassador who will work directly with citizens on how best to care for the trees and explaining why getting them to grow is important.
Non-native species that are sprinkled throughout Missoula, like the Colorado blue spruce and Norway maple, can also cause issues. The blue spruce, for example, is prone to falling over in high winds while the maples are considered an invasive species and take tremendous amounts of water.
One major problem city staff have run into in planting trees along neighborhood roads is that they do not always get watered. So instead of replacing the dying maples with more of the same, they are looking to invest in trees that work well in Missoula's rocky soil and do not need as much intensive care early in their life.
There are other benefits to the push as well.
"I think a lot of people love seeing tree-lined boulevards and stuff, but they don't realize that tree also reduces their energy costs on their house through shading and absorbs stormwater when we get big dumps of stormwater and helps the streets last longer," Valliant said. "It increases housing values. There's just all these intrinsic values."
City and state officials are hopeful the site, which, like the poplars, will be irrigated with effluent water, will produce 1,000 to 1,500 trees.
"You flush the toilet and it grows trees," Valliant said.
Once Missoula Parks and Recreation crews finish clearing out the poplar stumps from the site, weed control will be established and drip irrigation added. Fencing to keep deer out will also be put in.
In the fall, city employees and volunteers from Trees For Missoula will plant the trees around town. Valliant added the city is looking for volunteers to help.
Trial and error are to be expected for the project, Anderson said. It is, after all, a fairly new way to establish better urban forests.
"We're going into this with our eyes open, knowing it's not going to be perfect," Anderson said.
Jordan Hansen covers news and local government for the Missoulian. Shout at him on Twitter @jordyhansen or send him an email at Jordan.Hansen@Missoulian.com