Creating Tree Graveyards in San Francisco

At 13.7% of tree canopy coverage, San Francisco has one of the smallest tree canopies of any major city in the country.  When San Francisco’s Urban Forestry Council (UFC) announced its goal of planting 30,000 new street trees in the next 20 years, it seemed a modest goal.  Yet, Jake Sigg, the leader of native plant advocates in San Francisco, immediately objected to even this modest goal in his Nature News.  He announced the meeting of the UFC to consider the proposal and pronounced it a bad idea:

“JS:  Let’s start taking climate change seriously.  There is a prejudice—it is nothing more than that—that trees sequester more carbon than other life forms.  That is a simplistic view that, when looked at more closely, is found wanting.  To counter climate change we need to remove carbon from the air and put it where it will be for a millennium or more.  Removing it for a few decades or a century is pointless. 

“There are many reasons to plant trees on San Francisco streets, and many of our streets need them.  Climate change is not a stand-alone phenomenon; it is intimately related to diversity of biological elements.  That argues for planting native plants to invite dispossessed wildlife back into the city and you do that by planting the plants they need.  There are trees, shrubs, and perennials that ought to line our street to function in this way.  Carbon removal should not be a factor in our street plantings—biodiversity should be Number 1.”

Jake Sigg, Nature News, July 2, 2022

Yes, Jake, biodiversity is important because a diverse ecosystem is more resilient in a changing climate, but destroying all non-native plants does not make an ecosystem more diverse.  Climate change is the greatest long term threat to biodiversity, which makes addressing climate change a prerequisite to preserving biodiversity. 

I attended the Urban Forestry Council meeting of July 5, 2022, when this proposal was considered.  I was expecting to hear objections from Jake Sigg’s followers. Instead, the handful of written public comments objected to the meager commitment to plant only 30,000 new trees in San Francisco in the next 40 years. I learned more about the plan to plant more street trees in San Francisco:

  • There are presently an estimated 125,000 street trees in San Francisco.
  • Because the mortality of street trees is high, the expectation is that 50,000 street trees would need to be planted in the next 20 years to replace dead street trees.
  • According to the Urban Forestry Council it costs $1,500 to plant a tree and an additional $2,500 to water it for three years until it is established.
  • 4,000 trees would need to be planted every year to keep pace with expected tree mortality and to add 30,000 more street trees. 

These goals exist only on paper.  Between 1,500 and 2,000 trees per year are being planted in the city and no funding has been identified to increase this number.  After delivering this bad news about the sorry state of San Francisco’s urban forest, one member of the UFC spoke some much needed common sense.  Nicholas Crawford said we should “hold onto shabby trees” that are established and storing carbon.  He suggested that San Francisco should not remove trees that are at least stable because there are no trees to replace them. 

Existing trees in our urban forest are more valuable than ever.  They are storing more carbon than a replacement tree will store for at least 20 years.  They don’t need to be irrigated because they have the root and fungal networks needed to supply the tree with the moisture it needs.  Existing trees have proven themselves.  The fact that they are alive and well after 10 years of extreme drought proves they are adapted to current climate conditions.  So why destroy them? 

Jake Sigg acknowledged the value of forests to address the challenges of climate change in a recent newsletter:  “In order to have an impact on climate we need to stop deforestation and preserve, strengthen, and restore what is already here.” (Nature News, July 6, 2022)  But that principle does not apply to San Francisco for Sigg and his followers because the trees of San Francisco are predominantly non-native and they place a higher value on restoring pre-settlement treeless grassland and coastal scrub.  Because of the power and influence of the native plant movement in San Francisco our urban forest is being destroyed and planting trees is resisted.

San Francisco has made a commitment to destroying more than 18,000 non-native trees in San Francisco’s public parks.  The stated goal of that program is a landscape of native grassland and scrub.  UC San Francisco has also made a commitment to destroy most of the non-native forest on Mount Sutro.  Thousands of trees have been destroyed on Mount Sutro and more will be destroyed in the future.  The Executive Director of Sutro Stewards, the non-profit organization that is implementing the plans for destruction of the non-native forest on Mount Sutro is represented on the Urban Forestry Council, an odd choice for a citizen’s advisory council theoretically committed to the urban forest.

Tree destruction on Mount Sutro, January 2021.  Courtesy San Francisco Forest Alliance

McLaren Park:  A Case Study

Today Conservation Sense and Nonsense will visit a relatively new project in McLaren Park that has destroyed non-native trees in order to create a small native plant garden.  We drill down into the project to understand why San Francisco’s urban forest is being destroyed.  We visit this project because it is an example of many similar projects that are planned in San Francisco. 

This is one of many attempts to plant native plant gardens on Sunset Blvd in San Francisco. The functional windbreak of Monterey cypress is dying of old age. Rather than replace the windbreak, native shrubs are being planted on Sunset Blvd that will not function as a windbreak in the windiest district in San Francisco. The lack of maintenance that you see here is typical of these gardens, which makes them unpopular with neighbors.

At 312 acres, McLaren Park is one of the largest parks in San Francisco.  Fifty-three percent (165 acres) of McLaren Park is designated as a “natural area,” which means that a commitment was made nearly 25 years ago to transform it into a native plant garden.  The new native plant garden that we visit today is not actually inside one of the designated “natural areas.”  The reach of the native plant movement in San Francisco extends far beyond the 1,100 park acres of “natural areas” that were claimed in 1998. 

The new native plant garden is located in the southeast corner of McLaren, south of the community garden at the intersection of Visitation Ave and Hahn St.  This is a photo of some of the trees that were destroyed to create the native garden:

©Lance Mellon with permission.  July 2020

And this is a photo taken in December 2021, after the trees deemed “non-native” were destroyed:

© Lance Mellon with permission

The plans for the native plant garden say that 18 non-native trees would be destroyed and 6 native trees would be retained.  The plan claims that tree removals of all non-native trees were based on “professional assessments.”  Such “assessments” are routinely used by the Recreation and Park Department to justify the removal of non-native trees.  Photos of the trees indicate otherwise.  Retention of only native trees suggests that assessments aren’t even-handed.  The claim does not pass the smell test. 

Plans for the native plant garden indicate that more native trees will be planted:

The trees will need to be irrigated for at least 3 years to establish their root systems and ensure their survival.  The entire garden will need to be irrigated if it is to survive.  Let’s be clear:  an established grove of trees with an understory of annual grasses that did not require irrigation or maintenance was destroyed and replaced with new plants and trees that will require irrigation.  Is that a suitable use of scarce water resources during an extreme drought that is expected to get worse, if not be a permanent change in the climate?  That is the question we consider today.

About 9 months later, the “native plant garden” looks more like a tree graveyard:

McLaren Native Plant Garden, July 2022
Some of the newly planted trees are holly leaf cherry. Signs on the trees indicate that the project was paid for with a CAL FIRE grant. One wonders how a garden full of dead wood is less flammable than a garden full of living trees.

Granted, the native plant garden is likely to look better as plants grow.  However, it will only look better if it is irrigated and taken care of.  Why should we expect it to be taken better care of than the existing garden that required no maintenance?  Wishful thinking will not make it so.

The death grip of nativism

Climate change is the environmental issue of our time.  We are seemingly incapable of doing anything substantive to address climate change.  Political gridlock prevents us from controlling the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change.  The Supreme Court recently ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency does not have the authority to regulate polluting emissions from power plants. 

We focus on the preservation of our forests because it is the only tool we have left to absorb carbon emissions from the fossil fuels to which we are wedded.  Native plant advocates have taken that tool away from us.  Our urban forests are being destroyed and replaced with grassland and scrub.  Claims that grassland and scrub store more carbon than forests are ridiculous.  Those claims earn native plant advocates the label of climate change deniers.  As the drought continues to plague California, established landscapes that required no water are being destroyed and replaced with native plants that require irrigation. 

Cal Fire grant has created fire hazards in the East Bay Hills

Hoping to get the public’s attention, I will begin this story with its ending.  This is the concluding paragraph of my formal complaint to Cal Fire about its grant to UC Berkeley for a project that has increased fire hazards in the East Bay Hills, caused other significant environmental damage, and created conditions for further damage:

“In conclusion, the grant application for this project makes a commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions that is based on the assumption that a biofuels plant will generate electricity from the wood debris.  Such a plant has not been built and UC Berkeley apparently does not intend to build such a plant.  Other claims made in the grant application about carbon storage are based on inaccurate claims about carbon storage.  Grant guidelines state, “Failure to meet the agreed upon terms of achieving required GHG reduction may result in project termination and recovery of funds.”  In other words, Cal Fire should terminate this project and recover any funds that have been remitted to UC Berkeley.  The project is a misuse of grant funds because it will increase fire hazards and increase greenhouse gas emissions.  Without imputing motives, on the face of it, the grant application looks fraudulent.”

I published an article about this project last week that I invite you to revisit if you need a reminder of a project that has clear cut all non-native trees 100 feet on the north side of Claremont Ave. in Berkeley, leaving equally flammable native trees in place on the south side.  Huge piles of wood chips and logs are stacked along the road that were supposed to have been disposed of by generating electricity in a biofuels plant.  No such biofuels plant exists and there are no plans to build it.  The disposition of these potential bonfires is at the moment unknown.

The source of the funding for Cal Fire grants is California’s carbon cap-and-trade law that is intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, primarily carbon emissions.  Therefore, the grant application required the applicant to prove that the project would reduce greenhouse gas emissions to qualify for the grant.  The grant application submitted by UC Berkeley claimed to meet this requirement by making a commitment to use the grant to build a biofuels plant. The biofuels plant would have generated electricity by burning wood fuel instead of burning fossil fuels. In fact, the project has significantly increased greenhouse gas emissions by destroying large, mature, healthy trees.  The carbon the trees have stored throughout their lifetimes is now being released into the atmosphere as the wood debris decays along the roadside.

UC Berkeley made other inaccurate claims about carbon storage in order to qualify for the grant:

  • Statements made in the grant application about carbon loss and storage by planting oaks are not accurate:
    1. Coast Live Oaks (CLO) do not live for “hundreds of years,” as erroneously claimed by the grant application. USDA plant data base says CLOs live about 250 years in the wild.  However, that estimate of longevity does not take into account that Sudden Oak Death has killed over 50 million oaks (CLOs and tan oaks) in California in the past 15 years.
    2. Blue Gum eucalyptus lives in its native range 200-400 years. It has lived in California for 160 years, where it has fewer predators than in its native range.
    3. The grant application states that carbon storage will be increased by “changing species composition to hardwoods.” In fact, eucalyptus is also a hardwood tree, making this an inaccurate, discriminatory distinction.
    4. Above-ground carbon storage in trees is largely a function of biomass of the tree. Therefore, larger trees store more carbon.  It follows that carbon storage is not increased by destroying large, mature, healthy trees and replacing them with saplings of smaller trees, such as oaks.  The carbon lost by destroying mature trees is never recovered by their smaller replacements with shorter lifespans.
  • Plans to plant oaks where non-native trees have been clear cut willfully ignore the realities of the accelerating epidemic of Sudden Oak Death (SOD) in the East Bay Hills. According to the press release for the 2020 SOD Blitz, “…overall the rate of SOD infections increased in the wildland urban interface, in spite of reduced rainfall. This is the first time in 13 years of SOD Blitz survey that infection rates increase in spite of reduced rainfall, suggesting SOD is becoming endemic at least on the Central coast of California.”  As Cal Fire knows, dead trees are a greater fire hazard than living trees.
  • The grant budget commits the grantee (UCB) to pay “volunteers” to plant oaks.  That budget line item is described in the budget narrative as being funded by volunteer, non-profit organizations over which UC Berkeley has no authority. A “volunteer” is, by definition, not required to perform the assigned task.  It follows, that calculations regarding carbon storage resulting from this project are not ensured by the project because the planting of oak trees is not ensured by the project.  The “cost” of this line item in the budget seems more theoretical than real.
  • Planting young trees will require frequent irrigation that is not funded by the grant. Given continuing and worsening drought, planting young trees without making a commitment to irrigating them is throwing good money after bad.  Rainfall to date is 26% of the previous year.  Rainfall the previous year was less than half the year before that.  Oaks are not more drought tolerant than eucalyptus that are native to an equally dry climate.

The grant application also displays ignorance of trees and the functions they perform in the environment. 

  • The trees that remain on the north side of the road are now more vulnerable to windthrow because they have lost protection from their neighbors on their windward side. Trees develop their defenses against the wind while they grow in response to the wind to which they are exposed.  In California, most wildfire events are associated with high winds, making windthrow and wildfire probable simultaneous events.
  • The run off from the eroded hillside will undoubtedly pollute the creek on the south side of the road with sediment and road run off.

Claremont Ave. west of Grizzly Peak Blvd, December 2020. Photo by Doug Prose.

The project is not a suitable evacuation route

Claremont Ave, west of the Cal Fire/UCB project is a residential neighborhood, heavily wooded with native trees that overhang the road.   Source Google Earth.

The justification for this project was to provide an evacuation route. It is a premise that makes little sense. There are no residences east of Grizzly Peak Blvd, where the project begins. The residential community on Claremont Ave. is downhill, west of the project. If the residential community needs to evacuate, it won’t be fleeing up hill. Residents will need to flee downhill, through a tunnel of native trees. The roadside through the residential community is heavily wooded in native oaks, bays, and buckeyes. High voltage power lines overhang the road.  Nothing has been done to clear that road for possible evacuation.  This residential community would benefit from the creation of a safe evacuation route, not the pointless project that was done.

Claremont Ave, west of Cal Fire/UCB project is heavily wooded with native trees that overhang the road.  There are also high-voltage power lines hanging over the road.  Source Google Earth.

What’s next?

I received the following promising reply from Cal Fire by the end of the day I sent the complaint:  We are in receipt of your email dated 1/14/2021 in regards to a Fire Prevention Grant awarded to the University of California Berkeley (UCB).  We will promptly begin investigating your concerns and allegations of UCB non-compliance with the grant’s guidelines and contractual agreement.  I will respond to you within 30 days with the results of our findings.  CAL FIRE takes the grant assistance programs very seriously so we will investigate thoroughly.”

What’s done cannot be undone.  The best we can hope for is that the strategy used to reduce fuel loads on Claremont Ave. won’t be used elsewhere.  My primary goal is to prevent this destructive approach from being used on 300 miles of roadside in Oakland, as the supporters of the UCB project on less than one mile on Claremont Ave are demanding.

Governor Newsom has proposed that the State budget should invest an additional $1 billion in reducing fire hazards in California.  The proposal includes $512 million for landscape-scale vegetation projects.  Cal Fire will probably administer those grants.  It is critically important that Cal Fire improve its evaluation of grant applications to avoid funding disastrous projects such as the project done by UC Berkeley on Claremont Ave.  There are many worthwhile projects that deserve funding, such as providing the residential community on Claremont Ave a safe evacuation route.