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.