Not out of the woods

Tree advocates still concerned over policies, resources, as Public Works prepares to restructure

Local tree advocate Charles Withuhn says Chico isn’t doing enough for the trees.

Local tree advocate Charles Withuhn says Chico isn’t doing enough for the trees.


Talking about trees
Minutes, agendas and meeting schedules for the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission and its Tree Committee are available at the BPPC’s section of the city of Chico website at Chico Tree Advocates meets the second Tuesday of each month at the Chico Peace and Justice Center, 526 Broadway.

Last spring, Denise Britton—then serving as the city of Chico’s urban forest manager—was under the gun, putting what she believed to be the final touches on a draft Urban Forest Management Plan, while simultaneously fending off attacks from local tree lovers who criticized the city’s planting policies and trying to maintain Chico’s formidable tree population with a bare bones crew.

“The biggest issues we face are fiscal,” the embattled Britton said in a CN&R story (see “Canopy challenge, Newlines, March 21, 2013). “It’s a matter of funding and staffing just to maintain the existing trees. We have four people on our tree crew to maintain the 28,000 trees that we already have.”

When asked if she envisioned the city’s financial commitment to trees improving, all Britton offered was a low, strained chuckle.

If things were bad for Chico’s urban forest then, the final blow of the proverbial ax fell shortly thereafter. In June, that skeleton tree crew was cut altogether during the city’s first round of layoffs, and Britton’s own resignation—she cited personal reasons—left her position vacant, and the future of the forest unclear.

Fast forward to spring 2014, and things are even more murky. Britton’s swan song, the draft Urban Forest Management Plan, is finally scheduled for review by the first of many audiences—the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission (BPPC) Tree Committee (it was scheduled to meet April 16, after CN&R deadline). But Britton’s seat remains unfilled, and likely will stay that way, as Public Works is looking to streamline its department by eliminating that post.

The loss is yet another hit to what local tree advocates say is already an imperiled urban forest. This is on top of their longstanding complaints about a lack of resources dedicated to trees and inadequate planting and removal policies.

“The proposed restructure is a sad excuse for proper tree management, which should be the goal,” said Charles Withuhn of the group Chico Tree Advocates. He characterized the city’s cost-saving cuts as “penny-wise and pound-foolish.”

Dan Efseaff, as Parks and Natural Resource manager, has taken over many of the city’s tree-related responsibilities.

Photo by Ken Smith

“The effort should focus on passing on a vibrant, healthy urban forest to our children, and that’s not the road we’re on.”

At the March 25 City Council meeting, Public Works Director Ruben Martinez introduced his plan to reorganize the department. Other city departments have restructured to save costs in light of the budget crisis, and Martinez noted the vacancy of three key Public Works positions—the urban forester, park services coordinator and facilities manager—made it appropriate for Public Works to do so now.

Part of that plan includes not rehiring two of those positions, the forester and facilities manager, whose salaries account for $233,771. There would be some cost in divvying up the lost positions’ duties to other personnel, resulting in total departmental savings of $43,009, reads Martinez’s report to the council.

Martinez explained at the meeting that the physical duties once overseen by the urban forest manager would largely transfer to existing Parks and Natural Resource Manager Dan Efseaff, who, since Britton’s departure, has been the person most responsible for Chico’s trees. These duties include overseeing city staff and outside contract management for the maintenance, planting and removal of Chico’s trees. Martinez’s plan suggests the former forester’s other duties—such as policy research, direction and implementation—will be done by an outside contractor.

The part of Martinez’s restructuring proposal dealing with Chico’s urban forest was by far its most contentious element, and the City Council decided to send the plan to the next BPPC meeting for further review before it makes a decision. During the same City Council meeting, Martinez said the BPPC’s Tree Committee would be looking at a plan to make it easier for community organizations to obtain permission to plant trees.

Efseaff said he believes restructuring is a step in the right direction, but acknowledged the city has to learn to do more with less.

“We’re a much different-sized organization than we were just a short time ago,” he said, speaking of city cutbacks in spending and personnel. “But there are still a lot of jobs to be done, and by reorganizing and taking the time to figure out what everyone’s specific jobs are, we can accomplish more and better address the city’s needs.”

The city hired back one of the former four-person tree crew last year and, pending restructuring, available Public Works Department employees are tapped to carry out duties like some tree removals, maintenance and cleanup of fallen limbs.

A number of yarwood sycamore trees that city officials said were warping sidewalks were removed last week. Some of them will be replaced with sunset maples.

Photo by Meredith J. Graham

“So far we’ve been doing everything piecemeal, with people taking on certain duties as they come up. Because of that, we’ve had things happen that hopefully we can avoid moving forward.”

Efseaff cited the city almost missing its 30th year as a Tree City USA (see “Tree City snafu,” Newslines, Feb. 20) as an example, explaining Britton’s departure caused “a lack of institutional memory.” In that situation, nobody at City Hall remembered to fill out the application.

Efseaff has a background in ecology, and said he worked closely with Britton during her tenure, always with an eye for the overall health of Chico’s urban forest.

Still, Efseaff has to work within the parameters permitted by budgetary and other concerns, which likely will lead to ongoing friction with some tree activists. For example, he is adamant in keeping invasive species out of the park, but acknowledges there are several on the list of approved street trees, something that’s not likely to change soon. He also said that, with limited hands to provide adequate care, the city is bound to lose some of its aging giants.

Withuhn has been working to educate the public and city officials about ongoing tree issues, speaking to whomever will listen and distributing fact sheets and fliers regarding the economic and other benefits of trees, from increased property values to the suggestion that “trees reduce violence.”

Among Withuhn’s chief concerns are the lack of adequate pruning practices (he cites the 300 block of Normal Street as evidence, calling it a “classic whackjob”), removals of large trees, and inadequate enforcement of municipal codes and deals with developers dating back to long before the current budget crisis.

Withuhn said certain retail parking lots around the city have failed to meet expectations set forth by the city that required the sites be “50 percent shaded.” “But who’s making them do it? We have to change that. There has to be structured ordinances, with teeth, that allow for the city to hold these people to account,” he said.

Other contentious city tree practices include the planting of non-natives and a move toward smaller species, as well as the accelerated removals of large trees advocates argue could be saved if the city dedicated adequate resources to their care.

Withuhn said he favors the use of indigenous species, but said he understands it’s not always possible. Kristina Schierenbeck, a Chico State biology professor, botanist and conservationist, said she believes such attempts at restoration are of paramount importance, and that the city’s 2030 General Plan is “very clear” in directing planting policies toward natives.

“People don’t understand the value of biodiversity, because it’s not so tangible,” she said. “Any definition of sustainability includes components of social justice, and the ability of the environment to be sustained for future generations, and that can’t be done without biodiversity. Biodiversity is the foundation on which sustainability stands.

“Everybody’s overworked and underpaid right now,” she continued. “I understand that, but paying attention to this issue benefits everyone in the city.”