A canopy imperiled
Is hope on the horizon for Chico’s urban forest?
During the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission's meeting in September, commission member Mark Herrera walked out in protest. He had made a motion that the commission not discuss tree issues until such time that the city rehire an urban forest manager and adopt a policy on managing the urban forest as a whole. The catalyst was a request to remove 25 Yarwood sycamores growing along the sidewalks of a northwest Chico neighborhood. His effort was shot down, and as he left the meeting, he vowed to abstain on any future BPPC votes involving tree removal.
Herrera, who’s held true to his word, was frustrated by his work on a panel that considers the city’s tree and vegetation-related matters without such expertise. Like a growing number of community members, he’s concerned about the urban forest in a city known for its trees.
There is little question that Chico is indeed a “Tree City USA.” For the past 30 years it has been so recognized by the National Arbor Day Foundation. This time of year, the urban forest becomes even more striking with its many oaks, walnuts and sycamores adorned in bright coats of red, yellow and orange leaves.
Herrera isn’t new to advocacy as it relates to the trees. He was arrested downtown by police in 2011 for protesting the felling of a mature sycamore—a healthy tree removed for the construction of the roundabout at the intersection of East First, Second and Flume streets.
He’s been in Chico since August 2003, attracted here, like so many others, to attend Chico State.
“The school brought me here, but what kept me here were the trees,” he explained. “I came here from San Jose, which doesn’t have much of an urban forest.”
But developments over the past couple of years have Herrera and others in the community questioning the city’s dedication to preserving the canopy. It’s been a year and a half since Denise Britton retired as Chico’s urban forest manager, and her position remains vacant. Meanwhile, the effort to develop an Urban Forest Management Plan, initially drafted by Britton in 2011 specifically to address the unique nature of the local canopy, has sputtered out. Since then, tree advocates have pointed to a number of high-profile tree removals, including a large valley oak growing near the intersection of Salem and Eighth streets and several 75-foot-tall walnut trees at Third and Chestnut streets, as evidence of the city’s failure to protect the canopy. A local retail property owner’s felling of trees along Mangrove Avenue over the summer without the necessary city consent added fuel to the cries that the City of Trees was becoming a “City of Stumps.”
Then there was the matter of the 25 Yarwood sycamores. Last month, the City Council denied an appeal by the Butte Environmental Council of the BPPC’s vote to grant a request to remove the trees, which grow in a neighborhood along Mission Ranch Boulevard. The trees, residents said, were creating a hazard by buckling the sidewalks, dropping limbs and destroying the irrigation systems that run along the streets.
Robyn DiFalco, BEC’s executive director, said at the time that the appeal was based in part on what she called a “disturbing pattern” wherein removals were outpacing plantings.
“Removing a mature tree does not equal planting a little tree. It should be greater than a 1-to-1 ratio when those are mature trees,” she said. “We are losing our tree canopy.”
So is the urban forest under assault? That depends on your perspective.
It is important, Herrera said, to recognize that the city has been suffering financial turmoil, which has greatly cut into its services. Those cuts included the elimination of the city’s tree maintenance crew. (One tree crew worker has since been rehired.) The city’s tree committee, which is made up of three BPPC members, has met only four times this year, with seven meeting cancellations, Herrera noted.
“The sad part is that before we’d been meeting every single month and Denise, our urban forester, was kind of the catalyst for getting the Urban Forest Management Plan going,” he said. “We had the room filled with everyone from professors to biologists to naturalists. We were getting incredible feedback from the community.”
He blames the drop-off in urban-forest-related activity by the city to both the absence of an urban forester and a lack of city staff, whose members are stretched thin due to layoffs a year and half ago.
“We need a maintenance crew and we need an urban forester because she, as a staff person, did the education and she did the tree-planting workshops for the community,” Herrera said. “Part of that is to be able to teach people how to properly take care of their trees … so the trees will last longer and they won’t have to cut them down.”
At its most recent meeting on Nov. 24, the BPPC did discuss and respond to a City Council request that a forest management plan be adopted and the urban forester position filled by early next May. To save money, the council directed staff to fill the forest manager position by contracting out the job, similar to what was done in April to retain a city attorney. The urban forest manager’s job is to oversee the city’s forest as a whole, educating the public and homeowners and giving advice to city staff, as opposed to responding to individual vegetation issues, such as a dying tree in Lower Bidwell Park.
The city now contracts with two private firms—George Salinas Tree Services of Sacramento does the regular maintenance work, while Petersen Tree Care of Chico is called out for emergency tree work.
Ruben Martinez, the city’s public works director, and Dan Efseaff, the parks and natural resources manager, represent the city at the BPPC meetings. Martinez has worked for the city for 17 years and was appointed public works director in May 2013, just before Britton stepped down as urban forest manager.
He said work on the urban forest plan has picked up in the last few months, as has the effort to contract out with an urban forester. He told the BPPC members that he felt the City Council was “holding my feet to the fire,” with its direction to get both a plan and forest manager in place by next May.
Martinez thinks it’s a bit misleading to say that seven tree committee meetings were canceled this year.
“That is not completely accurate, because there were tree committee meetings held, I believe, up until June of this year,” he said. “The plan was progressing and had various comments and criticisms and there was still more work to be done at that point.”
The seven cancellations were made, according to Efseaff, because there was nothing to discuss at their scheduled times. He said more tree committee meetings were held this year than last year, when there was still an urban forester on the job.
“Those meetings are as needed,” he said. “If we don’t have anything ready, we’ll cancel them.”
In the meantime, Martinez said, other priorities took over and his department also suffered the loss of the city parks services coordinator, Lise Smith-Peters, who left in January, adding to the workload of his remaining staff. Smith-Peters gave her notice in early December.
“All of that just kind of created a backlog that we had to turn our attention to,” he said. “The parks services coordinator is a permanent position and we anticipate final interviews on Dec. 5. Then there are anywhere from two to four weeks of processing to bring an employee on board.”
Martinez touched on the city’s recent tree controversies, noting that the retail-property owner along Mangrove Avenue simply acted alone, violating city code. The Mission Ranch debacle was a case of the wrong tree being planted in the wrong place.
“We don’t have tree police out there and we are not going to have tree police out there,” he said. “I don’t think the people want that. What we can do is educate. These are street trees, which is just one part of our urban forest. There are about 35,000 street trees, plus or minus, and we have about 3,500 empty [tree planting] spaces.”
The city has been working with Mark Stemen, president of BEC’s board of directors and a Chico State professor, and some of his students in their efforts to plant trees in certain neighborhoods, including one along Humboldt Avenue where 14 trees were planted in a program deemed Blitz Plant. The effort is also funded by the Salvation Army in return for the felling of a valley oak at Salem and Eighth streets to make room for the building of transitional housing at that location.
Others have been working independently of the city to ensure the health of the canopy.
One of the most vocal tree defenders is Charles Withuhn, founder of the Chico Tree Advocates organization. Withuhn said when he started the advocacy group 18 months ago, he’d heard there were about 3,500 empty planting sites where trees had been removed but not replaced. He said the number of empty sites is now closer to 4,500—about 1,000 more than the city’s estimate.
“We are absolutely going in the wrong direction,” he said. “It is not all the city’s fault. At this moment we have a lot of mature trees that are at the end of their life expectancy, which is natural, and we might have to cut more trees down than normal.”
In his role as a tree advocate, Withuhn has aided the canopy in concrete ways, including helping locals with tree replacement. One example of this surfaced during the recent BPPC meeting, when a man named Merle Winter addressed the commission in regard to his request to remove a street tree growing in front of his home. The tree was dropping walnuts, he said, which presented a hazard to him and his wife, and would also interfere with the operation of the solar panels he plans to install on his roof.
Winter said he would replace the tree with three valley oaks. That species of tree had been suggested to him by Withuhn, who had heard of Winter’s intention to cut down the old walnut. Withuhn offered his help and the Chico Tree Advocates’ financial assistance in replacing the tree.
Withuhn says contracting out for an urban forest manager is better than having no manager at all. He recognizes the city’s financial situation, but doesn’t think trees are the place to economize. He noted how a member of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors has asked its attorney to draft legislation for an urban forestry fund in the form of a property parcel tax to pay for maintenance of the city’s 105,000 trees.
“Our city leaders and the leaders of San Francisco and the Bay Area have been just kind of sliding under the radar and cheating on the forests over the past few decades,” Withuhn said. “Now there is so much overwhelming scientific evidence of the benefits trees allow that a lot of cities are getting with the program.”
He said he believes the importance of the matter is well-recognized enough that Chico property owners would agree to a property tax increase if it was specifically aimed at urban forest issues. Such a fund could also pay for a full-time urban forest manager sometime in the future, he suggested.
“Maybe we can’t afford it right now, but hopefully Ruben [Martinez] will be able to complete his idea of what an urban forester contract requires before another six months is out,” he said. “He is doing his best and I really appreciate what he has done. I think a majority of people would support an additional tax to guarantee that we will leave our children a robust and healthy urban forest like the one we inherited.”
As far as filling the urban forest manager position, Martinez said he is currently working on “a scope of services,” which is more or less a job description, and that the contract may be with either an individual or forest-management firm. The advantage of contracting with a firm, he said, is having access to a number of individuals able to do the work when called upon.
“On the other hand, having a specific person as a consultant brings that kind of singularity and focus that we might prefer here in Chico,” he said. “It’s what I tend to lean toward, because I think we need somebody who is dedicated to the urban forest as well as its citizens.”
Martinez maintains that the urban forest is not endangered by current policies and understaffing.
“I don’t say that simply because it’s my goal that there are more trees,” he said. “It’s not endangered because we are looking after it. We have a certified arborist on board named Dave Bettencourt. He does need some help with the workload and we are looking to hire the urban forester for that reason.”
Bettencourt, who’s been with the city since 2008, is the field supervisor for public works and worked directly with Britton before she retired. His duties include checking the health of individual trees.
Efseaff said he has some reservations about contracting out for an urban forest manager.
“Council is looking for someone who can do the work just to get us back on our feet. It could be a firm instead of an individual and that does raise some questions because in the past, that position was in charge of staff and city resources. It’s going to have to be different. And if we have a poorly thought-out process, we could have this person directing work to their company. I’m not saying that will happen, but …”
Efseaff acknowledged the perception by some that the city’s care and maintenance of the urban forest has eroded in recent times.
“What is getting lost in the amplified rhetoric right now is that a lot of us are on the same page,” he said. “It’s just that we have had kind of a tough hand dealt us with the financing and all the work we still need to do on the ground. Sometimes the planning part can take away from that.”
He said development of an urban forest plan has been “kind of placed on the shelf because of our responding to emergency needs.”
“They [the BPPC] had a pretty concerted effort to work on it in 2012 and during the first part of 2013,” he said. “In May of 2013 [Britton] produced a draft for the next [BPPC] meeting, saying it was available for public comment.”
Britton retired the next month.
Development of the plan is moving along slowly, he said, and his department has taken some temporary measures to help with the workload.
“I would have loved to hire a park services coordinator last December, but we had to go through the Council, through [the] Finance [Department] and human resources,” he said.
The management plan, when completed, should help the city and its residents avoid planting trees that aren’t suitable for the environment.
Efseaff has a motto when it comes to the urban forest: “Right trees in the right place.”
The Mission Ranch Yarwood sycamores are a “poster child” for why that motto exists, he says. They are not a good tree for Chico’s climate, he said, because they grow too fast and as a result have weak limbs. In a few years, those trees, which were planted in 1999, would be either dead or dying. He says there are other locations in town where the wrong size trees have been planted.
“It’s like cramming a really large peg into a small, round hole,” he said. “It’s fine the first five years, but then you start having impacts and those impacts don’t go away because you put the tree in the wrong spot. You can’t just say, ‘I’m going to plant some acorns and it will all work out fine.’”
Another concern aside from a lack of replanting is what sort of effects the ongoing drought will have on the canopy. Martinez says the city is looking into the situation.
“We’ve done a statistical survey of our urban forest to see what kind of impact the drought has had on our trees and we are anticipating that it is going to cause us to do more pruning in the spring,” he said. “We have gathered the data and are still analyzing it.”
All the more reason to get the urban forester and management plan into place, say the tree advocates.
Withuhn stresses the environmental importance of the tree canopy beyond its beauty. He noted how the shade it provides saves energy otherwise used for air-conditioning and that the trees absorb carbon dioxide and other noxious gasses while providing oxygen.
“What that means is it is time for us to step up as a society, as a town, and plant more trees and think about the kind of Chico we are going to leave our kids,” he said.
Herrera echoed him.
“We’re not clear-cutting or anything, but I think if we don’t lock down our policies with an Urban Forest Management Plan, then we are going to be in trouble,” he said. “We are going to keep making individual decisions and that is just going to be a waste of staff time if we don’t have a streamlined way to do that.
“I’d like for us to make the hard decisions now so that 80 years down the road people will appreciate what we did. I would like to see our community values honored by getting the urban forest back on track. We are more connected to the urban forest than we realize and it needs to get the attention it deserves. The longer we put off the big picture, the more the urban forest and future citizens will suffer.”