Power planting

Chico seeks $450,000 grant to plant trees, update urban forest inventory

John Petersen, of Petersen Tree Care, trims a sycamore tree on a sunny afternoon in Bidwell Park.

John Petersen, of Petersen Tree Care, trims a sycamore tree on a sunny afternoon in Bidwell Park.

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

Want a tree?
If you would like a tree planted in the city sidewalk strip near your home or your front yard, email richard.bamlet@chicoca.gov, using “Tree please” as the subject, and provide your name and address. Chico Tree Advocates is also planting, and can be reached at 354-6337 or robinmccollum@sbcglobal.net.

After the buzz of the chainsaw quieted, arborist John Petersen called down from where he stood on a lift about 100 feet in the air under the canopy of a leaning sycamore in Lower Bidwell Park.

“Does that look good, Richie?”

Richie Bamlet, who celebrated his first year as Chico’s urban forester last month, called up to the city contractor: “Awesome! Very nice haircut!”

Park-goers smiled at the sight of the work on Thursday (May 10). One woman taking a jaunt through Chico’s busiest park looked upward at Petersen, commenting that she didn’t at all mind waiting to walk through. When it was safe to pass underneath the tree, a bicyclist quipped that he could help by catching a falling limb.

Tree-trimming is a significant part of tree care and even public safety, as it protects people from getting hit by heavy limbs that might otherwise fall. But the city’s tree division, like many other departments, was a casualty of the Great Recession, scaled back from about 11 staff members to a bare-bones crew of less than half that charged with caring for the city’s estimated 60,000 trees.

Bamlet said the city has been able to ramp up its efforts now that it has climbed out of the depths of the recession and resulting budget deficit. In the last two years, in addition to hiring Bamlet, the city has added another seasonal worker and senior tree trimmer, making for one full tree crew of six.

But the funding the tree division receives is still very limited: $844,000 for staffing and tree care across the city is consumed quickly, Bamlet said. He has a to-do list largely aimed at making up for lost time, and he’s hoping a grant opportunity will help the city fill those gaps.

On Tuesday (May 15), the City Council gave Bamlet the green light to apply for a Cal Fire Urban and Community Forestry grant. The city is seeking $425,811, and will match $183,102 by using resources it already has: staff payroll, development impact fees and volunteer hours.

The funding would be used to work with groups like Chico Tree Advocates (CTA), a program of the Butte Environmental Council, to plant 700 trees citywide over the next three years. It will start to make up for the approximately 4,500 spots where, over decades, the city tore out dead, diseased or dying trees and never replaced them. “I want to promote the idea that when we remove a tree, it’s ‘remove and replace,’” Bamlet said.

If secured, the grant will allow the city to develop a new urban forest tree inventory (which is 10 years old) and a master plan.

“We need to know how many of each species we have, what the size is, if they need to be trimmed [and] if there’s any risk, and that helps us form our work plan,” he said. “That’ll be our road map for developing tree-trimming and tree-planting programs, and outreach for citizens.”

CTA leader Robin McCollum said the group has been encouraged by Bamlet’s approach, and is focused on helping with planting efforts, while advocating that the City Council continue to build the tree division back to pre-recession levels.

“We’ve been banking on that [planting] for a long time but not depositing much,” McCollum said. “Richie’s got the long view. He’s committed beyond this grant.”

Regardless of whether the grant is awarded, Bamlet said he’s determined to plant those trees. “Right tree, right place: We’ll be working on that philosophy,” he said.

“My vision is to get the tree canopy in Chico from 30 percent up to 40 percent,” he continued, referring to the amount of shade the citywide tree cover would provide.

Ultimately, Bamlet would also like to see diversification of the city’s forest to shore it up against potential disease outbreaks, and the planting of more “work horse trees” that “scrub the air, provide shade [and], ideally, [are] low maintenance.”

Bamlet and McCollum stressed the value the new trees will have not only when it comes to residents’ enjoyment but for the environment. The program would allow Chico to reduce stormwater runoff by 5.2 million gallons—as the trees would absorb that water during heavy rains—save residents 4.9 kilowatt hours of energy and store 10 million pounds of CO2 equivalent over the next 40 years.

“Greenhouse gas reduction is probably the most important … in terms of [planting] being a visible effort that people can understand and makes them mindful of the many places that we can deal with climate change,” McCollum said. “They can see that a tree’s been planted, and they can connect it with that other benefit of trees to sequester carbon and help us that way.”

As part of the grant, disadvantaged and low-income neighborhoods will also benefit specifically from the plantings, and Bidwell Park would receive 100 of the saplings.

It may seem counterproductive to plant more trees when the city’s having a hard time keeping up, Bamlet said, but all trees have a life cycle: if Chico doesn’t keep planting, then the urban forest will disappear.

“Chico has been a tree city USA for 35 years now,” he said. “We want to keep it deserving of that title.”