Mass uprooting

Spring storms topple big trees in Bidwell Park

Dan Efseaff, the city’s parks and natural resources manager, checks out the root system of a tree that fell across South Park Drive, the southern edge of One-Mile Recreation Area in Lower Bidwell Park.

Dan Efseaff, the city’s parks and natural resources manager, checks out the root system of a tree that fell across South Park Drive, the southern edge of One-Mile Recreation Area in Lower Bidwell Park.


See a fallen tree?
Alert city staff by calling the Parks Division at 896-7800. If a collapse is imminent, call the Chico Police Department at 897-4900.

If a tree falls in Bidwell Park, does someone clear it? Unless it’s hazardous to park users or blocks a pathway, the answer is no: The city’s park staff generally lets fallen trees rest and nature run its course.

With all the wind and rain pounding the North State, that’s not just a hypothetical question. In the last two weeks, 17 trees have fallen in Lower Bidwell Park alone, said Dan Efseaff, Chico’s parks and natural resources manager. Others have fallen in Middle and Upper Park, he added, but the city hasn’t kept an official count.

In recent context, it was an unusual series of uprootings. An average of two or three trees fell in Lower Bidwell Park over the last few winters, Efseaff said. “More fell this year than in the last five years, for sure.”

California’s drought likely contributed. “The trees lose some of their roots because of the dry conditions” he said, referring to “root shedding,” a survival measure of stressed trees. “But there’s still weight up top. Then, with the rains, the ground gets loose and over they go.” Most of the trees fell after windstorms had passed, Efseaff said, indicating that ground saturation was the greatest factor.

So many trees haven’t fallen around the same time since 2008, Efseaff said, when a fierce late-March storm knocked down more than 80 of Chico’s street trees. At the time, most of the trees had sprouted leaves, which, in heavy winds, creates a “sail effect” that makes the trees more vulnerable. “With the leaves, there’s a much bigger surface area,” he said. “You get that drag, you get that leverage, on top of the wind and ground saturation.”

The recent storms came at a bad time for the chronically understaffed city park crew. With one worker out sick, only two were on-hand to remove tree material that presented an immediate hazard or blocked a right-of-way, Efseaff said. And with regular park duties beckoning, cleaning up the remaining debris has been slow work.

Most of the trees fell in less accessible parts of Lower Bidwell Park, but three were at One-Mile Recreation Area: one at the footbridge at Sycamore Pool; another in a nearby picnic area; and a third that crushed a fence and blocked South Park Drive. All three areas looked like “war zones,” Efseaff said while guiding the CN&R on a survey of the fallen trees on Monday (March 21). The vast amount of material left over was startling, especially from the tree that fell across South Park Drive. Workers had sawed the trunk into pieces and pushed the brush aside to clear the road.

Where will all the green stuff go? To the extent possible, park staff will keep it on-site. Brush and small branches will be turned into wood chips to provide soil nutrients and promote the growth of the next generation of oaks, Efseaff said. Sections of trunk either become park features—and habitat for forest critters—or barriers in parking lots. Only material too large to be chipped and too small to be repurposed in the park will become green waste.

In the case of the fallen tree at the picnic area, which forms an arch over the tables, park staff will leave it intact but move it to be “less in the way,” Efseaff said, and make sure the trunk is sturdy enough to support the people who will inevitably climb on it. The lower trunk of the tree on South Park Drive, on the other hand, will stay put. Workers will remove the root system for aesthetics, but otherwise their intent is for natural processes to take over.

“It’s part of Bidwell Park,” Efseaff said. “It’s part of nature.”