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City of Billings considering tree diversity amidst climate change

City tree pics 8.jpg
Posted at 3:36 PM, Jan 07, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-07 17:36:59-05

BILLINGS — Billings is changing its approach to trees in wake of climate change.

The best part of Montana for many are the impressive landscapes and that includes the thousands of trees throughout the treasure state. But some are increasingly at risk due to a changing climate, and many may vanish because of it.

"We think a lot about tree diversity. We’ve been thinking about it ever since I’ve been here which has been about seven years, how to get trees that will survive climate change because it’s been a factor ever since I’ve been here," said Steven McConnell forester for the Parks and Rec Dept. of the City of Billings.

Trees are critical infrastructure that can help cities withstand the effects of climate change by providing shade, absorbing stormwater and filtering air pollution.

But for that to happen, the trees themselves need to be resilient according to McConnell.

"There just aren’t a lot of native trees, everyone always says, 'well you should get native trees.' Well, there really aren’t that many but there are some near natives that do well," added McConnell.

While climate conditions hurt trees like the cottonwoods, which "struggle with the extreme cold and snow load" according to McConnell. Others like Ash and Elm trees can be damaged by pathogens like the Dutch elm disease, or pests like the Emerald ash bore, an insect which has yet to hit Montana.

The city plants around 200 trees a year and spends around five to ten thousand yearly on them according to McConnell. But tending to them raises the time and resources significantly he said.

"For the most part, we need trees that will survive in this climate because we don’t have the time or resources to provide a lot of nurturing care to trees," McConnell said.

Local Billings arborist Josh Smith has been working in his field for over a decade and says the importance of keeping trees healthy can’t be overstated.

"I focus on dead mitigation, crown reduction or crown thinning, structural pruning. Anything I can do to keep that tree around for the next 100 years," said Smith, owner of S-6 Enterprises said Saturday.

And he says, a tree kept healthy, is one that better handles not only the climate, but also other issues as they present themselves.

"A lot of those bugs and other stuff that come along is simply because the tree cannot withstand the stresses of it, because of the stress of something else," added Smith.

Too much or not enough water can be a cause of stress, which is attributed to climate change according to Smith. He says generally the issues start in the roots and present in the foliage. And while the city aims for diverse trees, McConnell mentioned that which trees survive in Billings may be left up to survival of the fittest.

"I think we’re going to have to start going with some of the trees that we kind of think are the ragged survivors that we don’t favor as much right now because they've shown they can make it," said McConnell.