A requiem for San Francisco’s urban forest

Smoky skies, poor air quality highlight need to increase The City’s tree canopy

By Josh Klipp

Unless San Francisco builds an air filter large enough to clean the sky, our staunchest ally in the fight against wildfire smoke and air pollution is trees.

This, however, is an inconvenient fact for a city with the smallest tree canopy of any major city in the United States — a canopy that is shrinking every year. And despite the fact that city officials understand the importance of trees to our future, they have failed to do what must be done.

Students of San Francisco history understand that, in its natural state, this is not a peninsula of trees. But students of climate change understand that humans cannot survive without them, especially in urban settings. Trees are the most efficient mechanism for sequestering CO2. They act as natural transpirators reducing drought impacts and cooling the planet. Trees create oxygen. (A mature leafy tree produces enough oxygen for 10 people every year.) And studies show that people in urban areas have a lower risk of psychological distress and better overall health if there are more trees within walking distance of their homes — places we’ve all been spending a lot more time lately.

But San Francisco is failing.

Take for example the San Francisco Urban Forest Plan. In 2014, we set a(n) (unfunded) goal to plant 50,000 new street trees by 2034. Since then, however, The City has lost a net of nearly 1,000 trees. With the passage of Proposition E in 2017 (“Street Tree SF”), tree removal has accelerated. Yet The City’s Bureau of Urban Forestry — part of Public Works’ cement team — has minimal money dedicated to tree planting, and even less in the age of COVID.

When developers propose massive construction projects, there is no mechanism to preserve existing trees, leading to the approved destruction of hundreds of mature trees at locations like 3333 California St., 3700 California St., 1100 Connecticut St., 1001 Potrero St., 645 Fifth St., and more. Even the scant protection some trees receive (i.e., requiring a removal permit) is often circumvented when contractors illegally destroy trees either thoughtlessly or because it’s faster and cheaper than the permit process. In the last 18 months, this has occurred at 1140 Harrison St., 2465 Van Ness Ave., 1501 Quint St.,1629 Market St. and 1100 Connecticut St., to name a few. Trees along Van Ness that were saved in a years-long fight by neighbors are being destroyed by sloppy construction practices as well.

In 2019, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission admitted to the Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee that, in the last 10 years, it had taken down 475 trees and planted 39. Since then, more large, healthy trees have been felled at SFPUC’s wastewater treatment facility for conveniences like a temporary parking lot.

The San Francisco Parks and Recreation Department — which manages over 131,000 trees — has an internal goal to replant trees 2 to 1, a goal it cannot measure because it has no tree records system. Additionally, SFRPD’s maintenance cycle is so poor that when trees are damaged — like the three large Canary Island Pines in Washington Square Park — SFRPD’s response was to simply remove those three trees plus seven more for good measure.

Big Basin smolders. Joshua Tree is ash. San Francisco destroys its scant canopy — particularly scant in poorer, more polluted neighborhoods like the Bayview. And while San Francisco has implemented climate initiatives to mitigate CO2, The City’s current climate action strategy notes that a failure to sequester more CO2 — what trees do 24/7 — means we will fail to meet critical climate goals.

There is a path forward, but only if we move quickly to:Create an empowered Tree Office to strengthen policy and coordinate strategy.

Hold departments budgetarily accountable for tree management.

Engage citizens and community organizations in urban forest initiatives.

Trees are a symbol of resilience and hope. We need more of that in our city, and in our hearts.

Josh Klipp is an attorney and advocate who works with San Francisco communities and city officials to improve our urban forest. He is also an accessibility consultant for people with disabilities, and a volunteer tree planting leader with Friends of the Urban Forest.

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