Planting trees for Butte

There is a photo in the Butte-Silver Bow Archives from 1895 of the Big Butte. It’s a stark scene of our city’s geologic namesake with nothing discernable but an old miner’s cabin in the lower left corner, a few piles of mucked dirt and maybe some patches of unmelted snow. No “Big M,” no fireworks, and perhaps most notable, no trees. The entire landscape is devoid of trees or anything else that appears to be living. 

Keep in mind this photo is from 1895. To say a lot has changed is an understatement, and in Butte it’s probably safe to say there’s nothing that’s changed more here for the better than our environment. Granted, our area isn’t a lush and rich vegetative ecosystem in the first place, but the barren landscape witnessed in 1895 probably was mostly due to the fact that every original tree in the area had been logged off and that no new trees were able to grow back due to the horrific air quality at the time. 

Smelting ceased in Butte proper in the 1930s, vastly improving the air quality conditions. Timber for the mines was shipped in from other forested areas and residents actually were keen on planting and growing their own residential trees. By the 1950s, many a Butte student had taken part in Arbor Day plantings, which are partly the reason why there is a veritable forest now growing on the Big Butte.

Along the Arbor Day theme, this coming Saturday, September 14, at Noon at the Lexington Mine Yard in Walkerville, is our city’s chance to get busy planting some new trees for the future. This is a free, family-friendly event led by Butte-Silver Bow (BSB) local government and Montana Tech’s Native Plant/Restoration Ecology program. It will also be the second tree-planting event this year. Back in April, 120 volunteers planted 1,000 small trees and shrubs in less than an hour!

This community tree planting project is part of a grant that BSB received back in 2012 from the Butte Natural Resource Damage Program. The tree grant was funded at $2 million and was slated to last ten years. Its goal was to enhance the plant diversity of Butte’s Superfund landscape with native trees and to stabilize the hill from erosion and to prevent sediments from loading our restored Silver Bow Creek. Like anything else, the program has changed and improved over time.

For instance, in the program’s beginning, large, mature trees were planted in pockets that were dug four-feet deep into reclaimed Superfund sites. These large trees needed to be watered and cared for intensively, which didn’t turn out to be an efficient use of resources. With help from the Natural Resource Damage Program’s oversight and now, input from Montana Tech, the program plants smaller trees and shrubs in much greater numbers. In addition to trees and shrubs, the program also plants native grasses and forbs (leafy, flowering plants) to add to the Butte Hill’s plant diversity. 

About five years ago, the “community” concept was added to the program, inviting families and residents to take part in the planting. Now, it’s grown to the point where having more trees and plants on hand for the 100-plus volunteers who show up to plant might be necessary.  Many of these volunteers are kids, who take part in the fun with their parents as a family.

“When my daughter is an adult, I’ll know that the trees planted by this program are as old as her,” said Julia Crain, who coordinates the planting events for BSB’s Superfund division. “A generation is reviving our landscape and learning how to be stewards of it for life.”

In addition to doing good for the environment and our next generations, the event is also a great opportunity for folks to learn about Butte’s restoration efforts, native plants and planting techniques and Superfund cleanup.  Come plant a tree for Butte!

PHOTO CUTLINE: This photo taken in 1895 shows the Big Butte with nothing more than a miner’s cabin in the lower left corner. No trees are visible, likely due to the heavy logging and poor environmental conditions present in Butte at the time.