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SF looks to grow revenues for planting more street trees

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Sidewalk trees sit in front of residential homes near Alamo Square in San Francisco, Calif. on August 19, 2016. (Photo by Joel Angel Juárez/Special to S.F. Examiner)

The head of San Francisco’s new street tree program called for patience Wednesday, saying it will take an additional three years to get to all of the approximate 125,000 street trees citywide.

Meanwhile, street tree supporters are calling on The City to spend an additional $12 million a year to plant thousands of more street trees to grow the urban forest.

Since the voter-approved StreetTreeSF program launched in July 2017, The City has pruned more than 20,000 street trees, or 19 percent of the total, using a team of contracted arborists.

There were 2,020 trees removed last fiscal year after they were deemed unhealthy or structurally unsound — more than the 742 tree removals the previous year, according to information provided to the San Francisco Examiner by Carla Short, superintendent of Public Works’ Bureau of Urban Forestry (BUF).

Short told the Board of Supervisors Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee Wednesday that arborists are working in sections of the city based on the highest density of trees in the worst conditions.

The plan is to prune all the trees by the end of fiscal year 2020-2021.

But as The City works its way through pruning all 125,000 street trees, there is another effort underway — to fund the planting of 6,000 street trees annually to grow the urban forest by 50,000 trees during the next two decades, The City’s goal.

“As we are addressing deferred maintenance, we are removing far more trees than we have historically removed and at current rates we are not keeping up with those removals and mortality much less starting to grow the urban forest as we have envisioned,” Short said. “That is one of our biggest challenges.”

She said that if The City were to plant 6,000 trees a year, it “would be able to keep up with mortality and grow the urban forest.” That would cost $12 million a year since it costs $2,000 to plant a tree and to water it for three years. About 4 percent of the trees die annually through a natural mortality rate.

Dan Flanagan, executive director of Friends of the Urban Forest, the nonprofit that backed the ballot measure and plants trees citywide, said he is pursuing funds for more tree plantings.

“We are going to people like Lyft and Uber, other corporations, saying, ‘Hey, if you really want to invest in your city, this a great way to do it,’” Flanagan said.

The City has $2.5 million in the current fiscal year for planting and watering and the same amount next fiscal year.

Short told the Examiner that The City “planted 783 and Friends of the Urban Forest (with support from Public Works) planted 1507” bringing the total to 2,290 trees planted last year.

She noted that of the total trees planted last year, 500 were in District 11 on account of Supervisor Ahsha Safai. Safai allocated a portion of funds each board member gets each year to spend on neighborhood needs toward planting trees.

Short asked the board members for the $12 million a year. “My hope is to start a little competition amongst supervisors and try to get you all competing to be the greenest supervisor on the board and set aside funding for us that way,” she said.

The $19 million a year tree maintenance program was adopted by 78 percent of the voters in November 2016 and required The City to take responsibility for all street trees in San Francisco. During lean budget years, The City had shifted responsibility of street trees onto property owners, resulting in a poorly maintained tree canopy.

James Riley, a Lake Street homeowner, told the Examiner Wednesday he was none too happy about the wait.

Riley said he called The City in May to prune the acacias in front of his home “as they were growing against the house and on the roof and clogging the built-in gutters.”

“It never got done and I had to fork out $2,000 before the scaffolding could go up,” Riley said in an email to the Examiner. “BUF told me they could get to it some time in 2020 since they did not have the resources to prune for a non-emergency. The trees were damaging the house and preventing me from doing needed maintenance.”

Short acknowledged some of the frustration with the pace of the work during the hearing. “We are systematically working our way through this grid map. We are focusing on the worst first.” Short said. “We need time. We have to ask for patience.”

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