Green Space: Stop taking trees down

Growing SF’s urban canopy provides economic, environmental benefits

Advocates say San Francisco agencies need to increase tree planting in The City as well as ensure that trees aren’t unnecessarily removed. Courtesy photo)

Earlier this month, tree advocates notified the San Francisco City Attorney that the Department of Public Works “is exhibiting a pattern and practice of disregard” of San Francisco law. The group pointed to notice violations that occurred prior to a May 11, 2020 tree removal hearing, and alleged that violations often occur in conjunction with large construction projects.

“During this unprecedented combined crisis of a pandemic during a climate emergency — notably mature tree canopy provides relief for both — we must guard against actions taken in the ‘fog of war’ that needlessly endanger future public health with mass, expedient tree removal,” Kasey Asberry and Josh Klipp of Demonstration Gardens – Healthy Street Trees Initiative wrote.

The May 11 hearing eventually was continued to June. But the continuance doesn’t address a larger concern that San Francisco’s response to the current economic and health crises isn’t incorporating long-term, sustainable solutions.

To be clear, unnecessary tree removals must stop and efforts to grow The City’s urban canopy must begin in earnest. Over the past four years, San Franciscans have faced suffocating wildfire smoke, drenching atmospheric rivers and record-breaking heat. Now, it’s a pandemic and major economic crisis. Planting more trees can soften these gut punches and put people to work. San Francisco needs agency commitment and funding to realize these benefits.

Despite The City’s goal to plant 50,000 new trees by 2034, agencies have allowed the removal of more trees every year than were planted. Some of these were dead or a danger. But too many were simply chopped down because they’re inconvenient. Lance Carnes, a volunteer with Healthy Trees Initiative, has compiled an archive of the Department of Public Works’ tree removals since November 2019. Out of 210 removals, 65 were authorized simply to make room for new construction projects, infrastructure improvements and private driveways.

While new trees were proposed at several of these sites, replacements may not provide the same benefits as the ones removed. For example, older trees can capture more carbon and divert more water from sewers than younger trees. Trees that don’t shed their leaves are also better at filtering air pollution, and may help reduce communities’ vulnerabilities to respiratory diseases, such as the coronavirus.

“To increase the carbon and other benefits trees provide, you have to staunch the flow of removal,” Maric Munn, another volunteer with Healthy Street Trees Initiative and a mechanical engineer, told me. She is working to model these benefits, so city officials can better understand the impact of unnecessary removals.

And benefits aren’t limited to the environment and health. Tree planting can create jobs. During the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched the Civilian Conservation Corps to put Americans to work protecting the country’s natural resources. The program was incredibly successful. By the time the program ended, Roosevelt’s “tree army” planted over 3 billion trees, fought forest fires, combated soil erosion and employed more than 2.5 million men.

A similar effort in San Francisco would need funding, which is a tough ask from the government these days. While the half-cent sales tax from Proposition K funds tree planting, it is not enough. And it is increasingly unlikely that additional general fund or capital improvement funds will offer a supplement cash flow. The City faces an unprecedented $1.7-billion deficit for the upcoming two-year budget cycle.

But there are a few billionaires and multi-millionaires who call San Francisco home. If The City wants to create a stronger green infrastructure it may need to tap them.

“There is a growing importance to forge public-private partnerships to grow our urban forest in San Francisco,” Rachel Gordon, director of policy and communications at the Department of Public Works, told me. “Philanthropic organizations and individuals focused on improving the environment could see meaningful returns on investing in planting more trees.”

In the midst of a health and economic crisis, it is dangerously easy to ignore the environment. We can’t let this fog obscure what’s necessary. With a clear vision, San Francisco can put people to work, lower pollution, fight climate change and strengthen communities.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Check her out at robynpurchia.com

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