Kalispell resident Patricia Johnson was inside her Fourth Avenue home enduring treatment for breast cancer four years ago when she had an idea on how to improve the appearance of the neighborhood.
“We have sky lights in our home and while I was recovering from the treatments I noticed how bright it was inside,” Johnson said. “The city had cut down the old trees on the street because of Dutch elm disease and the shade we were accustomed to having was gone.”
The city had removed nine large American elm trees because they were dead and it didn’t want them to continue rotting and falling apart, which would have caused safety issues.
When Johnson spoke to the city about getting the stumps removed so new trees could be planted, she learned Fourth Avenue East was on the list, but it was behind some other removal projects.
“So I got the neighborhood together and we decided, if the city would remove the stumps, we’d buy the trees to replace them,” Johnson said.
It was an offer the city couldn’t refuse, according to Kalispell Parks Superintendent Fred Bicha.
“This is a perfect example of the city and its residents working together to accomplish something meaningful,” Bicha said.
Another inspiration for Johnson was her son, Evan Hendrickson, who was working on his citizenship in community merit badge for his Boy Scout troop.
The family rallied some of the neighbors and everyone pitched in enough to buy the trees, which included red oak, bur oak, sugar maple, littleleaf linden, American linden and purple-robed locust, also known as black locust. The idea of planting different trees was to prevent the scenario of one species being affected by a disease in the future.
Today, the trees the neighbors planted are thriving. While they aren’t providing the shade the massive elm trees did, the hope is that they will someday.
Their efforts were recently recognized by the Kalispell Parks and Recreation Department and its Street Tree Committee, along with two other honorees — Kalispell Middle School and Jackola Engineering — with the Best of Kalispell Urban Forestry awards.
“Pat did a great job rallying the block to pitch in and her son also got involved by installing a gaiter bag on their tree to make sure it always had enough water even when it was very dry in the summer,” Street Tree Board member Terry Richmond said.
Another neighbor, Bruce Hirner, said whenever he changes the water in his fish tank, he dumps the water on the trees to help them through the summer.
Even the dead trees didn’t go to waste. Trees larger than 8 inches in diameter were donated to the Flathead High School wood shop and students have been making different things from the wood, including the award plaques that honorees received.
“That was one good thing that came out of something that wasn’t so great,” Bicha said. “It cut costs significantly for their classes, and they’ve made some amazing things out of it.”
For Kalispell Middle School, its Grace Orchard, named after former administrator Barry Grace, has been another prime example of a community working together.
Librarian Alli Mitchell is passionate about home-grown foods and she had an idea to plant an orchard of apple, plum and pear trees that could supply the school’s students with fresh fruit during lunch.
“The kids that planted that orchard are in their first year of college, so they knew they weren’t doing it for themselves. They were doing it for future generations,” Mitchell said.
Kalispell Middle School won an online contest in 2012 that was sponsored by Dreyer’s Fruit Bars, in partnership with The Fruit Tree Planting Foundation, to help pay for the purchase of trees.
Today, Kris Schreiner, an eighth-grade history teacher, has made the orchard part of his Montana Legacy class. It’s an elective class where students learn about the history of the state, including farmers, natives and mountain men.
“It has helped the students get hands-on agricultural experience in the school,” Schreiner said.
Students at KMS recently covered the base of the trees with mulch donated by Independent Tree Service.
“That helps protect them and helps them grow even when it gets colder,” Schreiner said.
Jackola Engineering was recognized for its variety of trees, which include cherry and aspen, as well as for the aesthetic qualities they provide that is unique among city businesses.
“They’ve really created an oasis around the building,” Bicha said. “A lot of commercial businesses are reluctant to do plantings and landscaping, but Jackola really exceeded expectations.”
Reporter Scott Shindledecker may be reached at 406-758-4441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.