Someone Has to Speak for the Trees.

by on April 30, 2021 · 1 comment

in Environment, San Diego

Here’s how TreeWatch San Diego works to protect our urban forest.

By Carolyn Chase / San Diego Union-Tribune OpEd / April 26, 2021

While big events like the EarthFair in Balboa Park were delayed for the second April in a row by COVID-19, the annual observation of Earth Day still gave people time to look for what you can do the rest of the year to connect with nature and help protect it, such as help your local trees and parks.

In the city of San Diego, healthy trees 110 years old and in the public right-of-way have been cut down in violation of city policies and processes. These trees are the latest casualty in a disturbing trend of tree losses to development, disease, pests and neglect.

California pepper trees were planted in 1910 in Kensington and about 35 remain. Residents have submitted nominations over the past five years for the city to designate them as Heritage Trees, which would afford some protections, but the city has stopped processing applications or bringing them to the Community Forest Advisory Board (CFAB) for review. Political efforts to consolidate environmental advisory boards have led to a lack of appointments so that the CFAB cannot even hold a meeting.

Because residents have filed a lawsuit on behalf of the trees, the city will not comment and still removed three trees in March, two of which had no evidence of decay.

The value of San Diego’s urban forest — the collective name for all the city’s trees — is clearly stated in the conservation chapter of the city’s General Plan:

“Trees in the urban landscapes are an effective, low-technology way to help meet ‘green’ building goals and reduce heat islands, while also achieving other environmental and economic benefits. The city’s urban forest, comprised of publicly and privately owned trees, helps reduce energy consumption, improve air quality, reduce storm water runoff, decrease soil erosion, improve the pedestrian environment, reduce glare, and improve community image and aesthetics. These benefits increase when the size and extent of the tree canopy is increased.”

The Climate Action Plan (CAP) includes a goal to “achieve 15 percent urban canopy cover by 2020 and 35 percent urban canopy cover by 2035.”

However, the tree cover may be declining instead of expanding. In 2019, 1,634 (small) trees were planted and 1,646 (large) trees were removed, according to the 2020 CAP scorecard.

Another case of the city’s undervaluing of trees is the Recreational Value Points System in the Parks Master Plan. There is nothing to protect trees from being removed if recreational activities or other design changes are preferred by the powers-that-be.

The new plan for Children’s Park in Downtown San Diego “thins” the urban forest. “All-weather shade” earns points while trees receive zero points. The new park plan earns more “points” with fewer trees and is deemed more valuable. Where is the sense in that?

Any removal of healthy mature trees is a loss forever. You can never make up the years that it took for trees to grow 30 or 60 feet tall. The natural shade that nurtured that area is gone.

Policies to replace older trees with younger trees are well-meaning and necessary. But it takes decades to replace the shade canopy where the elder trees are gone. Young trees do not replace the other benefits — the habitat for birds and other critters — at least not for a very long time.

Why do healthy, mature trees keep getting removed? Development takes precedence over protection. Trees are considered to be street assets instead of community assets. Plans win national recognition but implementation gets pushed aside.

Too many of us take trees and urban nature for granted. Yet this can change if enough people help.

TreeWatch San Diego is a citizen science project to help residents of San Diego understand the healthy, mature trees in their neighborhoods. TreeWatchers will learn how to survey their local trees, identify them, determine if they qualify for protections and register them online as part of the regional tree mapping project.

It’s time again to remember the lesson from a small character with a big voice, the Lorax: Someone has to speak for the trees.

Chase is a founder of San Diego EarthWorks, the nonprofit organizers of the EarthFair in Balboa Park. She lives in Pacific Beach.

Email if you’re interested in finding out more about becoming a TreeWatcher in San Diego.

Visit to learn more about our urban forest.


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

virginiamae May 5, 2021 at 10:15 pm

TreeWatch San Diego sounds like a great opportunity for each of us to take part in Citizen Science (aka Community Science). Gathering and sharing information about our remaining local trees will allow us to be better prepared to defend them against “removal”, pests, or disease. Also, when speaking with policymakers and city planners, tree advocates will have specific local data available, increasing their credibility.

Thanks, OB Rag for bringing this article to those of us who don’t read the UT.


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