‘The Tree Lady’ with a mission

written for the Sidney Herald, published on November 2, 2014

Local arborist and Billings native, Stephanie Ridl, loves small towns, family and trees. She lives in Sidney with her husband, Mike and their daughter, Katrina, 8.

“I am a parks superintendent but since we don’t have a community forestry department, or a city arborist, we have a need for it,” Ridl said. “I asked if I could take it over and they were very willing to let me.”

Ridl went began college at the University of Wyomming in Leramy, Wyoming with a focus in criminal justice before she decided to move back to Montana and peruse a degree in horticulture science.

“I have always had an interest in criminal justice, even as a kid that’s what I thought I would do,” Ridl explained. “My dad has always been in landscaping and horticulture and I worked with him through high school. I know trees and I love trees I felt more comfortable in that so I made the leap back to Montana.”

After completing her bachelor of science degree in Bozeman, Ridl moved back to Billings and landed a job at a nursery center.

“I just kind of missed the small town mentality and the small town folk,” Ridl said. “Billings was already too big for me after I’d been gone for six years.”

Ridl met her now husband, Mike, who was pursuing custody of his daughter and the couple moved to Sindey so Mike’s daughter could live with them.

“He has family here and so it worked,” Ridl explained. “The jobs were good and it was a good spot to stay. We got married last year.”

Ridl is a certified arborist and a certified plant professional, as well as a certified applicator. She said she loves everything about plants, but her real passion is trees.

“I think one thing I really love about Sidney is that there’s such a need for that right now, with the elm trees,” Ridl said.

For the past several years, Dutch Elm Disease has swept through the area, destroying many of the county’s Elm trees, which happen to be the majority of the tree species in Sidney. Ridl, with the help of the State of Montana, conducted a tree inventory in 2013 and found that 66% of the city’s canopy is comprised of two species, the Elm tree and the Ash tree.

“Now, with Dutch Elm Disease and the Emerald Ash Borer lurking around the corner, that’s very horrifying because we could lose 66% of our canopy,” Ridl said. “It’s on the chopping block.”

Last year, Ridl removed 39 trees from Sidney Parks and she said she could have removed 30 more just from Veteran’s Park alone. Her goal, however is to plant two trees for each one that is removed and to introduce a variety of species into the city.

“My goal is to have 10 percent of one species and no more,” Ridl said. “You won’t notice 10 percent [tree loss], as much as you will 66 percent.”

Though she takes her job seriously as parks superintendent, Ridl’s vision extends beyond Sidney’s parks and encompasses the whole of Richland County. Every year, around Arbor Day, which is the last Friday in April, Ridl hosts a workshop at which she gives away trees to attendees. Though most states who host such workshops supply the trees on a cost-share basis, Ridl believes residents have had to pay enough for tree removal in the past few years and wants to give back to the community.

“I give my trees away for free with the stipulation that you come to my workshop, and you have it planted properly,” Ridl explained.

In order to receive a tree, residents have to fill out a five minute application and allow Ridl to come to their home and see where they’d like to put the tree.

“I got trees of all shapes and sizes so I can pick a tree that will grow well in the space,” Ridl said. “It’s a simple application, but by putting in the five minutes to do it, I get people who actually are interested in the program and interested in taking on a tree of a different species.”

In years past, Ridl has only involved Sidney in her Arbor Day workshop, however this year she plans to involve all of Richland County.

“I’m expanding. It’ll be called Retree Richland County. It’s Fairview, Lambert and Savage,” Ridl said. “It’s not just Sidney that’s dealing with the Elm Disease and it’s not just Sidney that’s dealing with the huge population of Ash Trees.”

In order to expand the variety of trees in the area, Ridl uses her own yard for experimenting. She’s planted ginko trees, cork trees and other types of trees to see what species will thrive in the area.

“Last year I introduced nine different types of trees,” Ridl said. “I’m going to do the same this year. We need species diversity.”

When she’s not focused on trees, Ridl said she is busy being a mom.

“I’m a girl scout troop leader,” Ridl explained. “Katrina is in gymnastics, cheerleading and she’s going to soccer. I do more makeovers and paint nails now than I ever did as a kid, I’m kind of a tomboy.”

Ridl believes that investing in kids is worth the time, however, and she routinely involves children in her arborist activities, and is known around town as “the tree lady.”

“Kids love to be involved in tree plantings,” Ridl said. “They all love to get their hands in the dirt.”

Ridl’s biggest reason for introducing children the importance of trees is to lay a foundation for the future of Sidney’s canopy and parks.

“We have to start being proactive and stop being reactive,” Ridl said. “The tree thing is where I can help.”

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