A view of tree-lined neighborhoods in central Billings from atop the Rims with downtown Billings visible in the background. (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan)
A lack of tree canopy coverage and an unobstructed Big Sky in some lower-income neighborhoods across the state means many Montanans miss out on arborous benefits like better air quality, cooler temperatures and boosted property values, according to a new study.
A recent report by American Forests, a conservation non-profit, looked at hundreds of areas with 50,000 people or more across the country and compared the regions’ socioeconomic factors and tree landscapes. Researchers then compared those factors and assigned each area a Tree Equity Score ranging from zero to 100.
Montana’s three urbanized areas, Billings, Great Falls and Missoula, each received evaluations. Billings received the highest grade with 88, while Great Falls received an 82 and Missoula a 71.
According to the report, more than 1 million trees would need to be planted in Billings, Missoula and Great Falls to bring all three areas to a 100 Tree Equity Score. If those trees were planted, it would create nearly 9,000 new jobs and bring in $9.9 million in annual ecosystem service value across the state, according to the report.
But the city-wide scores do not tell the whole story.
For example, Billings as a whole received an 88, but more impoverished areas on the southside received scores as low as 28. And the people living in the lower score areas don’t receive the benefits of trees like better air quality and increased home values.
“I was surprised they rated Billings as high as they did,” said Billings Parks Department City Forester Steve McConnell. “But I thought it was really accurate representation of what I know of the city.”
Nearly 90 percent of the area’s population on Billing’s southside that received a score of 28 lives in poverty, and 49 percent of the area are people of color. Compare that to another Billings neighborhood that received a 100 and only 17 percent of the population are people of color, and 30 percent are in poverty, according to the report.
These trends track across Montana and the country, said Chris David, vice president of GIS and data science at American Forests. “In all three cases, the neighborhoods match the national trend that trees grow on money,” he said.
While doing urban forestry research, David and his partners quickly realized that whiter and wealthier neighborhoods have better tree canopy coverage, which is how the Tree Equity Score project came about.
“We have the technology now to try and do something about it and call attention to the issues and the challenges,” he said.
While Kalispell did not receive a Tree Equity Score, Fred Bicha, the city’s parks superintendent, said he is seeing the same trends as Billings, Great Falls and Missoula.
And amid weeks of record high temperatures, Bicha, said trees are as important as ever as they provide shade and maintain cooler temperatures.
Along with combatting higher temps that have come with climate change, trees also help reduce harmful emissions, David said, adding urban forestry is a unique tool in the climate change fight.
“In the global climate we’re in now there is this emphasis in attacking climate change and doing the things to reduce emissions and a lot of the emphasis is on large landscapes,” he said. “But the cool thing about urban forestry is that it is offense and defense. It is taking carbon out of the air but it is also providing benefits to people who bear the brunt of the impacts climate change.”
But the benefits of more trees are not just environmental.
“Tree equity is really important because there is a lot of data showing people are more satisfied with neighborhoods with more trees,” McConnell said. “Trees provide a sense of place and when you have better trees you are more satisfied.”
Studies have also found that kids who grow up around more trees and in nature tend to do better in school. And home values can increase as much as 15 percent when surrounded by adequate tree coverage.
“The list of benefits is endless,” Bicha said.
At 9 percent, Kalispell has the lowest canopy cover rate in the state, according to a parks department report and more than 100 trees were destroyed by record-setting winds in May 2020.
“I think it’s unfortunate forsure and something we can do something about,” Bicha said about the lower canopy rate, especially in lower-income areas. This past spring, using state grant money, the parks department with the help of other community groups planted more than 120 trees in areas adjacent to three homeless shelters.
“People in the area call me now and tell me how much they love going on walks,” he said. “Everyone knows trees are great for us, now it’s coming to light so much more now that people are putting more energy into it.”
Before the Tree Equity Score came out, Missoula was already in the process of trying to get more trees into underserved communities, said Karen Sippy, executive director of Trees for Missoula.
“We’ve been thinking about these neighborhoods for about the last 5 years now,” she said. And this year Trees for Missoula along with the city parks department and others are launching a program that will plant 20 trees on the city’s northside, which has higher poverty rates and lower canopy coverage.
To spread awareness of tree disparities and the benefits of trees around the state, the Montana Urban Community Forestry Association is launching a billboard campaign. The billboards will highlight benefits of increased canopy coverage including improved mental health, lower temperatures, pollution reduction and higher test scores for kids.
“Oftentimes especially in Montana, we take for granted the trees right around us. They benefit us in more ways than we know and the billboard campaign is to help us think twice and raise awareness,” said Bicha, who is a member of MUCFA.
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