Susan Teitelman 

April is Earth Month, which gives us special reason to reflect on the significance of the abundant nature that surrounds us. Even though I’m lucky enough tdo work protecting and advocating for the natural world as part of my day job, I still get excited every year to have an entire month devoted to engaging with community members around trees, flowers, rivers, and landscapes that surround us. 

Over the decade I’ve lived in Missoula, I’ve had the good fortune to become immersed in our forests, mountains, and meadows to study our local and regional flora. Through my botanical education, I’ve found that plants serve as connectors: they are tools to understand broader ideas and disciplines like history, culture, geography, climate science. 

Ultimately, plants connect us to place. Engaging with western Montana’s plants and ecosystems has deepened my sense of place and engendered the responsibility to be a steward of our environment – and especially our local plant life.

Now, through my work at Climate Smart Missoula and our organization’s newly acquired Trees for Missoula program, I have been thinking a lot about our urban forest in particular - the importance of trees for climate resilience, and the overarching benefits that trees offer our community.

Conventional wisdom and lived experienced has taught us that trees are “good.” And it turns out there is also a growing body of scientific research that substantiates this claim. Our urban forests offer us:

  • Climate benefits - trees aid in carbon sequestration, ease the urban heat island effect, protect against extreme weather, reduce stormwater runoff and energy use
  • Ecological benefits - trees improve air quality, provide habitat for birds, bugs, and wildlife
  • Social and health benefits- trees improve physical and mental health, reduce stress, provide spaces to recreate, and improve the aesthetics of our community
  • Economic benefits - trees attract shoppers to commercial districts, increase property values, and decrease utility bills

Missoula is no exception when it comes to deriving benefits from trees: our urban forest plays a significant role in keeping our community cool, healthy, safe, and climate resilient. Unfortunately, much of our urban tree canopy is struggling and too many of our trees are in poor condition. Several factors contribute to this, including damage from insects and wildlife, pathogen invasions, and human errors in planting and pruning. Lack of watering is another main concern, as trees must be sufficiently hydrated to survive in Missoula’s semi-arid climate. 

Crucially, tree wells – the traditional way trees are planted in urban and suburban settings – limit trees from reaching their full growth potential. Lack of species and age diversity is another concern. The infamous Norway Maple, imported and popularized by Francis Worden in the 1870s, accounts for a fifth of our total street tree population! These trees are now degrading due to old age as well as drought and development. Let’s replace them with the right species, planted right.

Though the challenges to our urban forest may appear dire, there are so many ways we, as a community, can change its trajectory. On an institutional level, we must include climate resilient, species-diverse, and native trees in our future urban forestry management plans. Incorporating trees that are heat and drought-tolerant and pest-resistant will go a long way toward building a healthy and long-lived urban forest. 

We can also advocate for the infrastructure our trees need to thrive. A key piece of infrastructure is suspended pavement – a technology that provides the necessary underground space for tree roots to grow and thrive – that can be installed instead of traditional tree wells. This allows trees to grow larger, provide more shade, and ease the urban heat island effect. Can we make this standard practice in Missoula?

In other parts of the country, urban areas are getting creative with their green infrastructure, combining landscaping with restoration projects or adding incentives for green roofs. Enhancing local landscaping requirements or options to incorporate trees, native plants, or greenspace is vital as we consider the best ways to be resilient to the impacts of climate change. Projects like Montana’s first suspended pavement system at the downtown art park and Missoula County Extension’s Rocky Mountain Gardens, which will feature native trees and food forests, are inspiring examples of the innovative nature-based climate solutions we need more of in our community.

Here at Climate Smart Missoula, via our Trees for Missoula program, we’re pursuing new projects to expand our community outreach and engagement efforts and advocate for tree equity in Missoula’s underserved neighborhoods. With the help of our community partners, our goal is to ensure that all Missoula residents can benefit from tree-lined streets and access parks and green space.

We all have a role to play in growing and maintaining a healthy urban forest. You can do your part to build climate resiliency by planting (and mulching and watering) a tree or by planting a food or native plant garden – or both. Containers on a balcony count too! If you’re thinking of planting your own tree, the Approved Street Tree list published by Missoula’s Urban Forestry Department offers a wealth of information about species, planting, and maintenance. 

There are many opportunities to learn about trees and engage with like-minded community members year-round, and especially during Earth Month. Climate Smart Missoula is co-sponsoring several upcoming events with our community partners, and we hope you’ll join us: 

Bookmark our calendar for climate and tree-related events this Earth Month and all year long. To learn more about urban trees and climate resiliency and to get involved with our programs, visit Trees for Missoula.

Susan Teitelman is the Climate Resiliency Specialist with Climate Smart Missoula. Climate Smart Missoula brings this Climate Connections column to you two Fridays of every month. Learn more about our work, support our efforts, and sign up for our e-newsletter at