Planting a seed

Urban forester embarks on city tree master plan

Urban Forest Manager Richie Bamlet stands among city street trees waiting to be planted.

Urban Forest Manager Richie Bamlet stands among city street trees waiting to be planted.

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

Public input:
Urban Forest Manager Richie Bamlet wants to hear what people like and dislike about Chico’s trees—plus input on the city tree list. Email before May 9, the next Tree Committee meeting. (Visit for the committee agenda report that includes the current list.)

The scene repeats itself countless times a week. Walking along a tree-lined street, Richie Bamlet slows, looks up, then jots notes on his clipboard. A passerby or resident, seeing his city-logo attire and hard hat, approaches. Discussion ensues.

He hears the history of an avocado tree in the backyard of a gentleman who says he got the seed from John Bidwell’s gardener (Bamlet takes a look—and a sample). He hears the latest account of limbs falling off valley oaks around Lower Park. He hears residents wax nostalgic about black walnut trees … and gripe about the same species.

Bamlet relishes these encounters. He’s been here two years, moving from Roseville to become Chico’s urban forest manager. Input from what he calls “safety jacket talks,” he said, is “honest and pure feedback from people who know this city. It’s priceless—I couldn’t pay a consultant $100,000 to get [that].”

A few people have mentioned the misfortune with sycamores along Mission Ranch Boulevard. In 2014, the City Council authorized—by denying an appeal—the removal of 25 Yarwood sycamore trees in the neighborhood. The trees had dropped limbs, uprooted sidewalks and damaged irrigation systems. These fellings followed others around town that concerned tree advocates and the Butte Environmental Council (see “A canopy imperiled,” cover story, Dec. 4, 2014).

Bamlet said those sycamores didn’t need to go. Arborists have techniques to trim trunks and roots in a manner that looks extreme but, performed correctly, can save both the tree and the paving. Coincidentally, the day he spoke with the CN&R—last Wednesday (April 11), before a city Tree Committee meeting—he’d attended a Sacramento Tree Foundation session about sidewalks and trees.

Through the Tree Committee, incorporating public input, Bamlet is developing a framework he hopes will forestall situations like the one on Mission Ranch Boulevard.

That framework: an urban forest management plan, with a 50-year horizon. It’s similar to the Bidwell Park Master Management Plan—in fact, members of the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission compose the Tree Committee—and Bamlet also compares it to the city’s general plan, which sets a blueprint for development. Bamlet’s predecessor, Denice Britton, started drafting a master plan in 2011 but retired in 2013.

A key “tool” for developers, designers and city officials who sign off on projects is a list of street trees approved for medians, parkway strips and parking lots. Updating that list constitutes a key part of the process (see infobox) and began at last Wednesday’s meeting.

Bamlet has a citywide tree inventory set to commence within two months and finish by the end of the year. The master plan also will codify planting, pruning and tree care—its crafting will run into 2020. He expects to revisit the tree list every few years.

Committee Chair Garrett Liles, a soil and plant sciences professor at Chico State, told the dozen attendees: “We’re a city of trees—we want a city of diverse trees.”

Diversity represents a consideration more significant than aesthetic. Bamlet explained before and during the meeting that bugs, both insects and pathogens, pose a serious threat to tree species. “It’s not a matter of if, but when” Chico will face an arborial plague, he said.

A beetle, the polyphagous shot hole borer, infests trees including California sycamores and has migrated north from Los Angeles to Ventura. Gypsy moth larvae feast on valley oak leaves; two were found in Butte County in 2010, indicating to Bamlet they could return.

Based on a decade-old study, Chico has 38,000 trees in public rights of way. Seventy percent come from just six families: maple, sycamore, oak, pistache, walnut and crape. Maples hold the highest proportion, at 18 percent of the canopy. While not as unbalanced as some cities—Portland, for instance, has 40 percent of one species, Norway maple—Chico’s breakdown raises concerns.

“It’s an ecological issue,” Liles said, “not just an urban street issue.”

Climate change is another factor.

“Whether you believe it’s man-made or it’s natural phenomenon, it’s getting hotter—that’s undisputed,” Bamlet said. “And it’s hotter than the sun in Chico during the summer! So we need to be looking at trees that grow in this Mediterranean climate.”

Does that mean native species only? Bamlet thinks not. He says other varieties do well here, and limiting the “palette” would be counterproductive.

Woody Elliott, a Chicoan who serves as conservation chair of the Mount Lassen chapter of the California Native Plant Society, said he’d “encourage the use of native plants whenever appropriate.” He cited as a good example the valley oaks within the Highway 32 median between Highway 99 and Forest Avenue. However, he added, his group isn’t opposed to other species, in the right context.

“That’s part of the planning process,” Ellliott said, “that Bidwell Park is for the natives and street trees are more heterogeneous.”

Robin McCollum of Chico Tree Advocates also prefers natives. He supports the push for diversity—and large trees, which he said last longer, provide more shade and remove more greenhouse gases from the air.

Yet, with 4,000 trees removed but not replaced (by Bamlet’s count), McCollum told the CN&R: “Any tree is better than no tree.”