A bicyclist rides along 24th Street under a canopy of ficus trees in the Mission District in April 2019.

No tree removals without justification

Advocates decry city plans to take down ficuses

The San Francisco Bureau of Urban Forestry (BUF) is planning to remove 124 ficus trees in six neighborhoods in The City. Neighbors have appealed to stop the removal of trees in the areas of Hayes Valley and 24th Street. Their appeals will be heard before the San Francisco Board of Appeals on Nov. 6 and on Jan. 8, 2020. Settlement talks are currently underway for trees at the Main Library and in North Beach.

In researching for the citizen appeals, advocates have learned that BUF has little or poor data to support its claims that ficus trees generally are a threat to public safety. Citizen groups believe that BUF’s internal database is organized in such a way that the bureau cannot identify trees proposed for removal, nor their condition justifying removal.

Concerned citizens listed below urge stopping mass ficus-tree removals until BUF can provide accurate data and convincing studies of the condition of San Francisco’s urban forest.

How many ficus trees failed last year? How many over the past five years? Unfortunately, BUF’s tree database cannot answer those questions. To explain, here is an example of a recent ficus-tree removal.

What was the “Broccoli Block?” And why does the BUF database not work?

The “Broccoli Block,” the 300-500 block stretch of Lombard Street on Telegraph Hill, was lined with more than 30 broad-canopy ficus trees. An iconic photograph of the street still is found on San Francisco travel brochures. In 2015, 28 ficus trees were summarily cut down on those blocks and replaced with fruitless olive trees with little canopy, stripping the much-visited street of its mature shade trees.

The BUF tree database, however, recorded that only one ficus tree was removed in 2015. The database also wrongly said that since 1991, 27 fruitless olive trees have existed on Lombard Street, even though they were only planted there in 2015. When any city street tree is removed, its history in the database also is removed. Thus, lacking accurate data, there is no way to determine how many ficus trees or others failed or were removed over a period of time.

There is no factual evidence of tree failures to justify the current move by the Bureau of Urban Forestry to undertake massive ficus-tree removals, or that ficus trees are more likely to fail than other species planted in The City.

Confusion Identifying trees slated for removal

Each tree in the BUF database has an identifier called a Tree ID. When a tree is proposed for removal, however, the Department of Public Works (BUF’s parent agency) identifies trees by a nearby street address. When BUF is asked to specify a Tree ID, it has difficulty doing so because the Tree ID and nearby address do not always agree.

That causes confusion for citizen groups when an accurate list is sought identifying trees proposed for removal. The condition of each of San Francisco’s 125,000 trees was rated by the $500,000 taxpayer-funded EveryTreeSF 2017 city-wide tree survey. To find the condition of a tree, the Tree ID is needed.

We were able to locate the Tree IDs of 118 of the 124 ficus trees BUF currently has slated for removal throughout San Francisco (records of six trees in Hayes Valley are missing). Of the 124 trees slated for removal, 99 are rated “Routine Prune,” six have no rating, and only 19 are rated “Priority Removal” by the EveryTreeSF survey.

Trees presently being challenged include 48 trees on 24th Street in the Mission, 28 in Hayes Valley, seven on Washington Square in North Beach, and 19 at the Main Library in Civic Center.

Time to stop cutting down trees without justification

Citizen groups argue that BUF cannot support with evidence its current policy of removing ficus trees en masse because they pose potential dangers of falling. The $500,000 EveryTreeSF survey shows that at least four other SF tree species pose a greater risk to public safety than ficus trees.

Advocates for protecting trees want factual bases for targeting ficus and mass removal of them throughout The City.

Advocates include Erick Arguello (24th Street, Calle 24 Latino Cultural District, Mission); Susan Cieutat and Natalie Downe (Octavia Street, Hayes Valley); Judy Irving and Lance Carnes (Columbus Avenue, North Beach); and Deetje Boler (100 Larkin St., Main Library, Civic Center).

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