Activists assert Chico’s urban forest is under assault

Butte Environmental Council Executive Director Robyn DiFalco stands near one of the 25 trees slated for removal in a north Chico neighborhood. DiFalco says an urban forest management plan is well past due.

Butte Environmental Council Executive Director Robyn DiFalco stands near one of the 25 trees slated for removal in a north Chico neighborhood. DiFalco says an urban forest management plan is well past due.

photo by Brittany Waterstradt

Last year Chico was named a “City of Trees” for the 30th time by the National Arbor Day Foundation. The town’s large and varied collection of towering conifers, oaks, sycamores, walnut and other trees continue to shade and beautify the landscape.

The city has lost its urban forest manager as well as its four-person tree crew (which nearly resulted in the city missing the deadline for getting that coveted City of Trees nomination). A recent city report shows there are 32,186 street trees and 4,404 stumps or sites where trees once existed, meaning the city currently has only 87 percent occupancy. Is Chico heading toward a title of “City of Stumps”?

Recent events suggest this may be the case. A few months back, four trees growing near the Rite Aid in the Park Plaza Shopping Center at Mangrove and Vallombrosa avenues were chopped down, attracting the attention of many of Chico’s tree defenders. Even though the trees were on private property, because it was a commercial development, city notice and permission were required—but never obtained. Trees since have been replanted by the property owner.

On Sept. 29, the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission (BPPC), the department that now oversees the city’s trees, approved the request by a homeowners association to remove 25 Yarwood sycamore trees that grow in a neighborhood known as Mission Santa Fe Circle. The trees are planted along Mission Ranch Boulevard, which runs west of The Esplanade and south of the Raley’s shopping center on East Avenue. The roots of the fast-growing trees—they are only 15 years old but stand 50 to 60 feet tall—have uplifted and in a few places buckled the neighborhood’s sidewalks. A spokeswoman for the homeowners association said three people have fallen due to tree issues. She said it was time for the trees to be replaced. That type of tree is not on the city’s current list of approved street trees. They were reportedly given the go-ahead because they were a favorite of the urban forest manager at the time.

At the BPPC meeting, Commissioner Mark Herrera said he thought it was premature to make such a decision without first holding a discussion about the urban forester position or the lack of an urban forest management plan. Four days later, the Butte Environmental Council made a request that the City Council reconsider the commission’s decision.

“We base our appeal on our belief that the project has undergone inadequate environmental review because the cumulative effects on the urban forest have not been discussed,” said the BEC request, written by Executive Director Robyn DiFalco. “Last year about this time we appealed to council a decision to remove another set of trees. We withdrew the appeal, in part, because the city committed to completing the Urban Forest Management Plan within a year. Almost a year later, the plan is not much closer to completion.”

The council is scheduled to hear the appeal on Tuesday, Nov. 4. City staff says the management plan is underway.

The question remains: Is the urban forest threatened by a lack of institutional oversight and a population that takes its trees for granted? Maybe, but there are still laws in place to protect existing trees—laws that say only dead, dying, diseased or dangerous trees can be removed from city rights of way. And like the four in front of Rite Aid, even those on commercial property receive some city protection and oversight.

But DiFalco and a number of others don’t want to take any chances. The Oct. 27 BPPC meeting’s small attendance included DiFalco as well as Charles Withuhn, the founder of what is now called Chico Tree Advocates.

They were there to hear the appeal of two denied applications for permits—one to remove a city street tree on Camden Court and one to prune 25 percent of the crown off a city tree on 12th Avenue. In the first case, the property owner near the tree said she thought she had planted the tree before the neighborhood was incorporated into the city and at the time “had no idea it would become home to the boxwood elder beetle.”

She said she has to pay “a couple times a year a couple hundred dollars to have the tree sprayed for these beetles,” which are not going away.

Dan Efseaff, the city’s park and natural resources manager, told the commission that city staff had investigated the tree, found it in good condition and that soapy water would help manage the bugs. The tree, a Trident maple, is common in the area and even on the city’s street tree recommendation list. The property owner didn’t attend the meeting and her appeal was denied.

The second case was a request to prune by 25 percent an English walnut tree whose nuts and limbs were falling on an elderly couple’s yard and driveway, creating a tripping hazard. The request also said the tree’s presence would interfere with solar panels the couple planned to install on their roof. City staff said a 25 percent crown pruning was too much and offered a 10 percent allowance.

Property owner Merle Winter told the commission the walnuts that drop from the tree present a hazard to his disabled wife and damage his car. Winter, who said he was nearing 80 years of age, told the commission that the 25 percent crown reduction was recommended by a certified arborist he had hired.

“I have eight trees in my backyard,” he told the commission. “I love trees. I actually like this tree. It’s just too much to live with.”

DiFalco is looking forward to the Nov. 4 council meeting, which will address the removal of the Mission Santa Fe trees.

“These 25 trees merit this kind of reconsideration that we don’t just go willy-nilly hacking down large numbers of trees,” she said. “For us it is a disturbing pattern of tree removals that are outpacing tree plantings.”

She said removing a large tree and replacing it with a single small tree is a losing equation and in most cases two young trees should be planted when a mature one is removed. City code guidelines call for the replacement tree to be 6 inches in diameter at breast height, or about 5 feet high. If the tree being replaced is 12 inches in diameter, she said, it should be replaced with two 6-inch-diameter trees.

“We are losing our tree canopy,” she said. “One baby tree does not equal one mature tree and the shade canopy that it provides, reducing the heat effect and increasing the habitat value.”

Efseaff said City Council has instructed staff to contract out for an urban forest manager, which he said they are now working to do. In the meantime, “a lot of institutional knowledge has been lost.”

The city has hired a tree maintenance worker, though it does contract some work out, and also has on staff a certified arborist named Dave Bettencourt.

“He is a street tree field supervisor and can assess a tree and develop a work plan,” Efseaff said. “All pruning and assessments come to Dave first. He is qualified for evaluating trees.”