Let the planting begin

Chico Tree Advocates offers free trees in an effort to rebuild the urban forest

Charles Withuhn’s backyard is filled with trees ready to be planted around Chico.

Charles Withuhn’s backyard is filled with trees ready to be planted around Chico.

Photo by Ernesto Rivera

Get involved:
To make a donation to Chico Tree Advocates, to volunteer, or to arrange for a tree to be planted, call Charles Withuhn at 518-1417. For more info, visit www.becnet.org/chico-tree-advocates

When the city cut down 209 trees and planted only 14 in 2014, Charles Withuhn felt a huge sense of loss for what he sees as one of the most quintessential aspects of Chico. To him, the trunks and branches that line and tower over city streets are a part of Chico’s unique charm and history. The canopy they provide is essential to the city’s health, he believes, and their care is a responsibility of the city and its residents.

In an effort to do his part, more than two years ago, Withuhn started Chico Tree Advocates, a local organization under the umbrella of the Butte Environmental Council. Members of the group work toward planting trees, educating the public and preserving Chico’s urban forest. As a donations-only, volunteer-staffed group, Chico Tree Advocates has been able to plant more than 50 trees around town, both on city and private property, in the past year. Withuhn and many fellow advocates feel that the path the city is taking, in terms of cutting down trees and either not replacing them or replacing them with very small trees, is detrimental to Chico’s urban forest.

“If you can imagine Chico with a lot less trees, that’s not a pretty picture,” Withuhn said. “What makes me grateful to live here is not the bushes. It’s these towering giants that have been here since Annie Bidwell, and they’re not being replaced.”

The city of Chico’s 2015 Sustainability Indicators Report includes an outline of the number of tees the city has removed as well as how many it’s planted. And surveying the years prior illustrates how dramatic 2014’s tree removal was: In 2013, 87 were chopped and 38 planted; and in 2012, before laying off the tree crew, including the urban forester position, it cut down 170 and planted 107.

The reason for a vast majority of the removals, especially with larger trees, is that they are in locations that don’t accommodate them or they interfere with certain infrastructure like power, gas or sewer lines, said Dan Efseaff, Chico’s park and natural resources manager. If space allows, the city will replant a large tree, but only after taking its entire lifespan into account.

“In the past, people put stuff in the ground without giving a full [consideration] of 20 years from now,” Efseaff said. “We have a ‘right tree, right place’ philosophy that takes these things into account.”

The problem for Withuhn is the way in which the city is replanting trees; he sees a much better value in large trees, like sycamores and oaks, for their role in energy savings and heat reduction through shade, and their long life spans of up to 300 years. The alternative is planting medium-size trees, like maples, that will have to be replaced in 60 years and offer much less shade. And looking at the numbers, clearly many trees aren’t being replaced at all. Withuhn, with disappointment in his voice, pointed to many areas around town where he’s seen trees reduced to stumps or replaced only by smaller trees.

“The logo, in front of City Hall, is a tree, and yet when it comes to a problem with a sidewalk, instead of moving the sidewalk, it’s ‘Cut down the trees,’” he said. “There are other ways to do it and their answers are always: ‘Cut down trees.’”

In total, Chico Tree Advocates has raised about $11,000 to buy trees. If someone is hoping to replace a tree that’s on city property, the city has to review the site and approve the species or the space, but if it’s on private property, Withuhn and other volunteers can start digging right away. The group tries to encourage people to plant large, drought-tolerant, native trees like valley oaks and California sycamores.

“My goal is to plant 1,000 trees a year for six years, so we can get our sapling numbers up so that we’ll pass on to the next generation a robust urban forest,” Withuhn said. “We’ll need help to do that.”

For the year ahead, the city of Chico is planning several initiatives to care for Chico’s urban forest, Efseaff said, including planting more than 100 trees through a PG&E donation. The city hopes to work closely with groups like the Chico Tree Advocates to make sure the city’s “right tree, right place” philosophy is used when planting on both city and private property. The city is also moving forward with restoring the urban forest manager position, which has been vacant since 2013. Even with these efforts, Efseaff said there will still have to be some removals.

“The drought looks like somewhat of a distant memory—I hope it is—but we’re still in a water deficit,” Efseaff said. “There’s a backlog of trees that have suffered for the last four years, so there will be some removals.”

Withuhn and other advocates have been meeting with City Council members, speaking at meetings and tabling at the Saturday farmers’ market to make sure the city and the community do not forget about the preservation of Chico’s urban forest.

“Twenty years from now, our children won’t remember or care about most of the issues we’re worried about today,” Withuhn said. “This has not only been a gift, it’s a covenant. It’s an opportunity to pass on to the next generation a robust urban forest. Let’s not be the generation that was too busy to plant and protect trees in Chico.”