By Keila Szpaller
Missoula, MT (March 26, 2012)- Once upon a time, Greg Howe and a friend used to head out at night and plant trees in Florida under cover of darkness. By day, he and his “tree fanatic” friend worked at a retail nursery, and by night, they engaged in “guerrilla tree planting.” Then they got caught.
Instead of being punished, the city landscape architect who caught them told them to start a tree-planting nonprofit. Howe did, and now he’s in charge of the trees in the city of Missoula.
“I really do enjoy it, and for my part, it’s not about just what I like,” said Howe, 51. “It’s about knowing the fact that the trees that we’re able to plant, able to prune, are increasing the quality of life for the entire community.”
Howe is the city’s new urban forester, and last week, his first presentation to the Missoula City Council Conservation Committee earned him high praise from at least one councilor.
“At one point in Greg’s presentation, he was listing off all the virtues of trees, and he had better grades and reduced domestic violence on the list,” Councilman Bob Jaffe wrote in his committee report. “Those were new ones for me, so I asked, and he said it comes from research showing the psychological effects of being around trees.”
Before coming to Missoula, Howe worked in Fayetteville, Ark. His undercover tree operations eventually led him to urban forestry. He said he likes that the Missoula City Council seems to have some understanding of the urban forest because it’s facing some challenges – as well as opportunities.
One opportunity comes in the shape of a volunteer group that formed to support trees: Trees for Missoula. (At first, it was named Friends of the Urban Forest, but the group changed the name for clarity.) Ken Wall, a volunteer with Trees for Missoula, said the city has worked with a number of urban foresters who have come and gone in the last few years, and it’s nice to have someone experienced on hand.
“It’s nice to have (Howe) on board, and hopefully the program can develop and we’ll keep him here for some continuity,” Wall said. Wall is a forester himself and also owner of Geodata Services. In 2008, he had a contract to help convert the city’s tree inventory. There’s still a lot of inventory to accomplish, and he hopes to be able to engage the community in some of the mapping of trees. It’s just one of the things that needs to be accomplished for the health of trees in Missoula. According to Jaffe’s report, more than 60 percent of the city’s trees are maples, and 95 percent of them are in poor health, so they’re “vulnerable to a catastrophic disease event.” “Even though we have an awesome urban forest, we have some urgent problems,” Jaffe said.
In the short term, Howe said the department has plans to plant trees on Pine and Third streets, where it removed them, and in some parks and along trails. He also has plans to prune boulevard trees and figure out how to create better places for trees downtown, although they won’t take out trees that are already planted.
It’s common to plant downtown trees in 4-by-4 areas, but that’s like stuffing them into a pot that’s too small, he said. They don’t have enough soil to hold their roots, and they stop growing. “Once they stop growing, they will be more open to stress and more open to disease,” Howe said. He said the city tree ordinance was written in 1995, and he also wants to look at whether it’s still adequate and helpful for the urban forest.
And he should know. In Florida around 1978, Howe had a strong track record after he and his friend started the tree-planting nonprofit, TampaBay Reforestation and Environmental Effort Incorporated, or TREE Inc. For more than a decade, they raised trees for three or four years and then planted 500 to 800 at a time during a couple morning hours with the help of other volunteers. Those trees had an 84 percent survival rate.
The climate is drier here, of course, and Howe wants folks to remember to water their yard and boulevard trees this summer when it gets warm. He’s going to try out some “ooze tubes” this year, doughnuts that circle trees and allow water to seep out. He has other advice besides watering, too: “Plant a tree for shade, and enjoy.”