Pipeline payout

Park Commission accepts PG&E deal to pay for new trees

Robyn DiFalco, executive director of the Butte Environmental Council, said the city needs to remain vigilant in its dealings with PG&E.

Robyn DiFalco, executive director of the Butte Environmental Council, said the city needs to remain vigilant in its dealings with PG&E.


PG&E will be cutting down 52 trees along Comanche Creek as part of its Pipeline Pathways project, but the felling could result in as many as 156 new street trees in the community.

The fate of the trees, which are located on eight separate private properties on the city’s southern end, was effectively sealed at the most recent Bidwell Park and Playground Commission meeting (Nov. 16). The panel voted to accept a compromise brokered among the city, the power giant and green watchdog group Butte Environmental Council. PG&E offered the city $20,000 to plant a street tree for each one removed from the project area, as well as provide three years of watering and maintenance. The company has also offered the property owners two new trees for each removed, with the option to plant them on their property or instead donate money for two additional trees to the city. So, in total, there could be three trees planted for every one removed.

Though the plan is still awaiting final approval from the City Council to accept the funds, PG&E spokesman Jeff Smith said that the check has already been mailed. He also said the company is in communication with seven of the eight property owners, but it’s too early to tell how many more of those trees will end up along city streets.

Smith said that PG&E has no legal obligation to replace the trees: “The trees we’re clearing are actually exempt from any city tree ordinance or other law, but we recognize the value that the community places on them and wanted to respect that,” he said.

The utility company’s Pipeline Pathways project is an effort to remove trees, vegetation and structures along 6,750 miles of natural gas pipelines throughout the state. It started after a 2010 gas line explosion killed eight people in San Bruno, though tree advocates throughout the state have argued trees didn’t play a role in that explosion. Smith noted the goal is to allow better access to safety workers in the event of an accident.

Earlier this year, PG&E suffered a public relations nightmare in Oroville, where the company removed 243 trees. Many were cut down before the public was aware it was happening. The last few to fall included a number of ancient sycamores outside the Oroville Cemetery, and their removal prompted protests, a stand-off and law-enforcement intervention.

“We hate to see any trees cut down, and also don’t believe that saplings and baby trees can adequately replace some of the larger trees we’re losing, but it’s a compromise,” BEC Executive Director Robyn DiFalco said of the Chico agreement. “For that, we applaud PG&E’s effort.”

DiFalco said BEC began talks with PG&E early this year to ensure a tree-by-tree review of those scheduled for removal in Chico, greater public involvement in the process and appropriate compensation if the trees are removed. The review resulted in the reduction of trees slated for removal, from 86 to 52.

Still on PG&E’s pipeline chopping block are 33 trees south of Chico along the Midway, on county property. Smith said PG&E is still working with BEC on those trees, and hopes to have a plan to present to the Butte County Board of Supervisors by January.

“It will closely resemble the Chico plan,” Smith said.

The Pipeline Pathways project isn’t the only threat to Chico’s urban forest, the status of which has been murky since the departure of Urban Forest Manager Denice Britton and the downsizing of the city tree crew in early 2013. Britton had been working on a draft Urban Forest Management Plan to better manage, maintain and protect the local canopy, but that plan remains in limbo.

According to the city’s most recent Sustainability Indicators Report published last May, the number of street trees planted by city staff has been greatly reduced while removals have risen dramatically in recent years. In 2014, 209 trees were removed, while only 14 were planted.

Dan Efseaff, the city’s Park and Natural Resources manager, noted those numbers don’t account for plantings related to new development or volunteer efforts. He also said the reason removals are rapidly outpacing plantings is that the city’s budget and skeleton staff is limited to “minimal, emergency-oriented services.” He said the “vast majority” of trees removed in recent years—as well as at least 82 more on a current list of trees to be cut—qualify as “dead, dying or dangerous.”