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Kim Isley's business relies on two simple ideas: Most people don't need more stuff in their homes, and the world does need more trees in its forests.

So in 2008, the Santa Rosa woman founded Trees for a Change, an online business allowing gift-givers to celebrate a holiday, memorialize a deceased relative or pet, or mark any other occasion you can imagine, by paying for a new tree to be planted in a national forest.

"You don't need that ceramic tchotchke," she said. "I mean, we all like our stuff — I like my stuff — but there are times, I feel, where it is really appropriate to give a gift that is not more stuff."

Isley sends the gift recipient a certificate announcing the planting of a tree, then gives money to the U.S. Forest Service to help fund replanting operations in fire-ravaged sections of national forests nationwide.

Her website provides detailed instructions for visiting the trees and photographs of the seedlings, taken by Isley herself, who visits every planting site at least once.

Because the Forest Service doesn't allow memorial plaques on public land, she said, "We can't say this right here is your tree. We can tell you we planted 800 trees in this forest in this particular period of time and one of those is your tree. ... You can go there and pick out your own tree."

The timing, location, and type of trees planted is up to the needs of the Forest Service, she said. They typically plant the trees in large groups in the late spring or early summer.

Since starting the business, Isley has been responsible for the planting of more than 9,000 trees, mostly in California but also in Montana and Michigan. She hopes to reach 10,000 this year.

"It feels good to know people are doing something meaningful, but it also seems like the best use of their tree juju," she said of her decision to direct the company's money toward the Forest Service rather than support other kinds of tree planting programs. "Their tree energy is going to a place where it is really needed.

"We could plant trees in Santa Rosa and that would be awesome," she said. "Planting a tree anywhere is a really great thing, but to know it is going to a place it is really needed is particularly important."

The gift service has been used in a variety of interesting ways so far, she said, including as thank-you gifts from businesses, to commemorate the births of babies, and even a handful of customers who bought trees to congratulate newly inaugurated President Barack Obama in 2009.

Santa Rosa mortgage broker Kathleen Hoare said she uses the trees to thank a customer when she closes a loan. And since it is no longer proper for brokers to pay a cash commission to Realtors for referrals, she will plant trees to thank them for sending business her way. She has planted more than 100 trees in this way in recent years.

"I think the most impactful thing is that when you plant a tree for someone, you know it's going to outlive you," she said of the gifts. "That's more meaningful than something short-term, like a calendar."

Several schools have used the trees as a fundraiser.

"The trees were picked because they're not candy, they're not cookies ... and it teaches the children to take care of the environment," said Judi Dudley, a parent who coordinated a 2012 fundraiser for the Valor Christian Academy in Redondo Beach.

The students sold 250 trees, raising more than $1,500 for new computers and a new science program at the K-8 private school, she said.

Isley said that more than half of the trees sold so far have been as memorials for people who have died, a niche she had not expected to fill at first but which has been growing in popularity.

Santa Rosa accupressurist Deborah Myers saw the power of a memorial tree first-hand when her husband Randy died of cancer in 2011. Friends and followers of her online account of Randy's illness banded together to buy 125 trees in his memory, planted in a western corner of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.

"Because the tree grows forever, I was like, 'oh, my God, my friends love me,'" she said.

She keeps the certificate announcing the gift posted in her home. She and her two adult children have visited the area where the trees are planted.

"It gave me goosebumps to be there," she said.

A Colorado veterinary clinic uses Isley's company in a similar way, planting a tree in honor of every pet that has died at the clinic over the past several years. Co-owner Christine Campbell said the Harmony Animal Wellness clinic in Kittredge has planted between 60 and 80 trees since starting the program.

"People are really attached to their animals, and animals do a lot for us when they are alive," she said. "It seems like a nice thing to have a memorial to the animal that is alive."

Isley, a high school teacher in Windsor, said she has always wanted to have some kind of business of her own, but only came up with the tree concept in the middle of the past decade, around the time the global-warming-themed movie "An Inconvenient Truth" came out. That got her thinking about something environment-related.

In doing research about helping the environment, she kept coming up with one common element on all the lists and guides to helping the earth.

"I swear to you almost every one said plant a tree," she said. "Trees sequester a ton of carbon over their lifetime — one tree. That's a lot of carbon. They kept saying planting a tree can really make a difference."

Since starting the business, Isley has taken on the cause of trees with an almost evangelical passion. She calls herself not "president" of the company, but "tree-hugger-in-chief." She tears up freely when talking about visiting the "babies" that the Forest Service is planting. She was deeply moved by her visit to one of the Forest Service nurseries where the small trees are raised, grown from seed taken from trees as near as possible to the fire scene.

"It sounds dorky, but I cried when I went to that nursery. ... All these people just taking care of these trees with love," she said, dabbing at her eyes just at the memory.

"It's really personal to me," she said. "I don't have children yet, so this is sort of like my child. ... When I see the trees, it's like a really spiritual experience."

(You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or sean.scully@pressdemocrat.com.)

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