Saying it was in Missoula’s best interest, the City Council on Monday night approved the purchase of Hybrid Energy Group Montana, which has maintained the city’s tree plantation and its 90,000 poplars over the last eight years.
The city will purchase the business and its assets at a cost not to exceed $165,938 using wastewater enterprise funds.
Graywater produced by the city’s wastewater treatment plant is kept out of the Clark Fork River by watering the tree plantation. The trees in turn help scrub the air of carbon dioxide and were intended for phased harvesting once mature.
But the city has not seen much of the viability expected with harvesting the poplar trees as sawlogs, which, as part of the project, were originally planned to be harvested in 2026.
The council approved the purchase 9-3 with councilors John Contos, Jesse Ramos and Sandra Vasecka opposing it.
Council member Heather Harp was a supporter of the purchase.
“There is not much demand at all for poplar in terms of lumber form, but really the benefit of what this project actually does is prevent fluid being circulated into the Clark Fork River,” Harp said. “And I think every single one of us here believes in clean water and that we should do the right thing as stewards of both our water and our land and our air, and that’s why I am supporting it.”
In May, city council approved handing arboreal duties to the city, with the 160-acre poplar grove trading in its contracted arborist for a city arborist with the department of Parks and Recreation.
It was an adaptation to make operations related to the poplar grove more efficient in what is looking to be an unfriendly market for the trees, according to Missoula Public Works. A manager of the plantation suggested that instead of sending the wood to a local sawmill, it go to a compost factory.
And on Oct. 26, the City Council approved a $34,752 budget increase to the wastewater treatment project for a study conducted by Anderson-Montgomery Consulting Engineers, Inc.
According to background given on the item, the study was energized by a 2019 University of Montana study indicating that the poplar market failed to develop to match predictions made at the inception of the Missoula project in 2013.
The study will allow the City to make an informed decision on the future management of the plantation and consider alternative options for the poplars. It could also mean potentially diversifying the crop to include hemp, alfalfa, turf and several other crops.
Council members present at the Public Works Committee discussing the study on Oct. 21 supported it unanimously.
“I think it’s good for us to know what the options are and make decisions based on all those different paths we can follow,” council member Mirtha Becerra said at the meeting.