Saving Missoula's urban forest 

One-hundred-year-old maple trees tower over Missoula rooftops. The green canopy produces oxygen, absorbs pollution and helps define the Garden City's historic character.

Those old trees, however, are nearing the end of their natural lives. "It's generally understood that the vast majority of these trees will be gone in 20 years," says Missoula City Councilman Bob Jaffe.

That looming threat is prompting the city to take action. Last week, Jaffe proposed creation of a new special tax district that, if it garners approval from the Missoula City Council and the public, would generate money to preserve and replace aging trees. As Jaffe envisions it, the district would encompass neighborhoods that have a disproportionate number of old trees, like the University and Slant Street neighborhoods.

"It seems like people who live in the neighborhoods with trees would be interested in paying a little bit to support the trees," Jaffe says. "And that's what we'll be asking."

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Missoula Parks and Recreation Director Donna Gaukler says that the city now spends roughly $310,000 annually caring for the urban forest. That sum includes the costs of tending to the roughly 25,000 trees that dot public thoroughfares. It also pays the expense of cutting down dying trees and planting about 175 new ones annually.

Gaukler says the city's urban forestry program is strapped. "In order to move from a reactive urban forest to a proactive urban forest, we probably need to approximately double that budget."

The tight forestry budget makes it impossible to prune trees as often as the city should. Standard forestry practices recommend trees be pruned every seven years; Missoula trees are pruned roughly every 45 years. "They're kind of on their own," Gaukler says.

Gaukler says additional funds created by the special tax district would enable the city to prune more consistently and, therefore, extend the lives of trees.

Jaffe next will meet with Gaukler and the Missoula City Attorney to draft proposal specifics. It will then go before a Missoula City Council committee. As it's early in the discussion, details are still being fleshed out. "Is it based on property value?" Jaffe asks. "Is it based in street frontage? You know, how is it done?"

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