Hailey Smalley

The Bitterroot Valley may not be a natural forest, but Missoulians enjoy the benefits of nearly 30,000 trees.

“Without them, this place would be unlivable,” Marie Boggess, program specialist in Missoula’s urban forestry department, said.

For the past seven years, Boggess and the urban forestry department has worked under the direction of the 2015 City of Missoula Urban Forestry Plan. The plan detailed a total of 16 goals to improve the health of Missoula’s urban forest and emphasize the community’s connection to its trees.

In terms of numbers, the city failed.

The first goal, for instance, aimed to plant 900 trees a year. Boggess estimates that the city plants only a few hundred trees a year.

“It’s impossible,” she said of the original 900-tree-a-year goal. “We tried.”

Boggess said that a staff shortage limited the department’s ability to meet its goal. Boggess said she spends more time in a typical year removing dead and dying trees than she does planting new ones.

Jamie Kirby, urban and community forestry program manager at the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, was part of the working group that wrote the master plan. Kirby said she had reservations about the plan’s lofty ambitions before it was adopted.

“It was a little bit too much,” Kirby said. “It had to be.”

Volunteers plant trees in a southside Missoula park. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)
Volunteers plant trees in a southside Missoula park. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)

Despite the city’s failure to reach its goals, Kirby believes that the plan increased community awareness of the benefits an urban forest provides.

Trees filter carbon dioxide and pollutants out of the air and help reduce stormwater runoff. Several studies have also found that trees can lower temperatures by as much as 10 degrees during hot summer months.

Karen Sippy, executive director of Trees for Missoula, spends most of her time educating residents on the benefits of trees and organizing volunteer events to support the urban forestry department.

“It was only 11 years ago that nobody knew what we were talking about, and now [urban forestry] is part of a conversation worldwide in cities,” Sippy said.

Sippy mobilizes volunteers to help the city’s planting efforts, a method which she said has not been effective for increasing the sheer number of trees in Missoula. But there are other benefits.

“The volunteer thing, it does slow things down to be honest with you, but you need the community buy-in. It’s a way to endear the community to the urban forest and get them to take care of it,” Sippy said.

But not all Missoula residents have equal opportunity to contribute to the urban forest.

A 2021 report by the conservation nonprofit American Forests measured tree canopy cover in various neighborhoods across Missoula. Neighborhoods including Franklin to the Fort and the Westside often had less than 10% canopy cover. Meanwhile, in the Rattlesnake and University neighborhoods, tree canopy cover hovered closer to 30%.

Missoula, as a whole, received a 71 out of 100 for “tree equity,” placing it behind the only other two Montana cities measured, Great Falls and Billings.

“When we wrote the master plan, social equity was not a topic that was as prevalent,” Sippy said. She plans to focus future planting efforts of Trees for Missoula on lower income neighborhoods, which typically have less tree cover than high income areas.

Marie Boggess said the city is aware of the socioeconomic inequities related to tree cover. It recently implemented a cost sharing program to alleviate some of the financial barriers residents face in requesting a tree planting. When residents request a tree planting, they typically have to

Boggess said the city will likely begin to write a new urban forestry master plan within the next few months. Marie Boggess, Jamie Kirby and Karen Sippy said they plan to advocate for more goals related to equity and education in the new master plan.

“Our urban forest is something we actually can do something about,” Sippy said. “We can have an effect on the trees we live with. We can actually affect great change in our neighborhoods.”