Feds Gives $10 Million for City’s ‘Urban Forest’ Despite Gloria’s Track Record in Keeping Trees

by on October 4, 2023 · 16 comments

in Environment, Ocean Beach, San Diego

I had to laugh sarcastically this morning when I read in today’s Union-Tribune about how “San Diego plans to boost the city’s urban forest with $10 million in federal climate funds that will help it plant thousands of trees in vulnerable neighborhoods and preserve many threatened trees.”

A good part of the article was about how trees help mitigate heat. City Forester Brian Widener even was quoted as saying:

“Trees provide shade, ecosystem services and a host of other benefits to make a greener and more livable San Diego. We are thrilled to receive this funding which will improve San Diego’s urban forest in our city’s historically underserved communities with new trees and expansion in growing space around our existing trees.”

Readers of the Rag are familiar with Brian Widener. OB and Widener have not had a cozy relationship – or Kensington. Widener wanted to cut down 110-year old healthy Pepper Trees in Kensington because he claimed they were so badly decayed, they were a safety hazard. He based his assessment on photos or limited inspection of just a few trees. A private assessment by a retired UC arborist found most of the trees were sound and could have lived another 30-40 years.

Widener explained that by looking at only a few trees, “we’re able to extrapolate” and say the rest on the list are in that same category and in decline at pretty much the same rate. “The reality is all of these trees are at their end of life,” he said. Yet, a January 2021 windstorm that knocked down 200 city trees but failed to topple any of the remaining 33, supposedly end-of-life, peppers. Still, Widener asserted that would not change his conclusion.

A June 2022 Reader article reported:

In Ocean Beach, neighbors were similarly appalled when, on short notice last October, city crews showed up with chainsaws, ultimately killing five of the century-old palms and planning to return for more; allegedly a request of the airport and FAA, which the lawsuit disputes.

Both cases accuse the city and Widener of pressing ahead with the removal of healthy trees and failing to give notice or seek community input, as called for by the 2005 tree policy. Under the policy, all tree removal permit requests must be sent to community planning groups, council members and the currently inactive community forest advisory board.

Of course, we don’t have to go to the Reader for stories about Widener.

Back in October 2021 – referring to the incident in OB in the Reader article – Rag reporter Geoff Page was on the ground with other OB and Pt Loma residents upset by the city’s efforts to remove the Palm Trees. Page wrote:

The City of San Diego is moving forward aggressively to cut down iconic and historic, tall palm trees on Newport Avenue, Santa Monica and Santa Barbara.

They are lying to the public saying it is because of a safety issue.

These are healthy trees — there is no safety issue whatsoever. But, when talking to the city’s forester, Brian Widener, it soon becomes clear that he is one of those people who believe if you repeat a lie over and over, people will eventually believe it is true. No matter how many times he says it is a safety issue, it is still not true.

The city is not only using public safety as an excuse, they are bypassing all the normal procedures for removing city trees by designating these as emergency removals. There is no emergency, the city just does not want to take the time to explain to the public why removals are necessary.

To add insult to injury, the city had the airport send residents a letter dated October 8 but not received until October 14, and it stated:

“The Tree(s) identified above are scheduled for removal by a City of San Diego contractor within the next few weeks.”

The tree removal crews showed up unannounced Tuesday, October 19 and began cutting a tree before a resident stopped them.  This was not a contractor; these were City of San Diego employees.

After at least one resident tried to block crews from cutting down a palm tree in front of her house, Widener threatened to use police if any other residents interfered.

Then, later that month, Widener’s department removed four palms at the intersection of Cable and Niagara on October 28 and he refused to say why. His uncooperative response generated a Public Records Request by Page – which showed the bogus claims of the city — and of Widener.

Things worsened. In April 2022, Page reported:

The City of San Diego committed a crime against the Point Loma / OB community on the morning of Monday, April 25, there is no other way to put it. They came out to Newport Ave. and thumbed their noses at the public while hiding behind a phalanx of police officers as they murdered historic palm trees.

What is so infuriating is that the city did this very same thing last October. Only the public outcry the morning they showed up and quick legal action saved the trees in 2021. In both cases, the city attempted to come out and quickly, and stealthily to kill the trees, with barely 24 hours of notice to anyone. On Monday, it was less than 24 hours.

Page found that city forester Brian Widener tried to abuse the immediate safety hazard mechanism to get rid of more palm trees. The Municipal Code defines “Imminent Life Safety Hazard” as “any condition which creates a present, extreme and immediate danger to life, property, health or public safety.”

Since all of the trees are still standing just five months later, this definition clearly would not have applied as the city forester attempted to apply it.

In essence then, the City and Widener lied to the public about the”‘Immediate Safety Hazard” in its effort to remove the Point Loma Palms.

So, yes, this is where my cynicism about the city planting trees springs from. And at my sarcastic chuckle when reading Widener’s quote.

With all this money coming in, perhaps the city needs to enhance its “award-winning Community Forest Advisory Board.” The last time Geoff Page looked at the Board’s website, he found that when he hit the link for the current 14 board members, it showed that 12 members were marked as expired and two members marked as vacant. Of the 12 expired members, 7 expired in Jan., 2021, 2 vacant as of Jan., 2020, and others have been vacant since 2011 thru 2019.

So much for Widener. What about the city itself?

Earlier this year, Page discovered that the city had chopped down 13 trees in the Midway District for no good reason. So much for our urban canopy.

Don’t get me wrong. All this federal money to plant more trees here is a good thing.

But under the current administration of Mayor Gloria, the city — and its forester — really have a checkered history in protecting our trees, our urban canopy. The city lied to the public; Widener lied to the public – and up to now, have cut down more trees than they’ve planted. So, we have to carefully watch and ensure this $10 million is spent actually planting trees.

UT reporter Joshua Emerson Smith wrote a recent piece in April about the city’s canopy count and doubted the city could close in on its goal.

However, it’s unlikely that significant progress has been made. The city has planted about 1,220 trees a year on average since 2020. But officials confirmed Tuesday that it’s losing just as many trees to old age and new development.

That means the city may have actually lost canopy coverage in recent years, said Anne Fege, the longstanding chair of the city’s Community Forest Advisory Board. “You actually go backwards because the removed trees are bigger,” she said. “Trees don’t grow that fast.”

The city’s newest goal for canopy coverage would require planting about 100,000 new trees by 2035, or about 8,333 a year. This year, the city estimates it will only plant about 1,000.

Fege said she’s advocated for years to increase the city’s forestry budget with little success. “The story is tired,” she said. “They’re not spending the money. They’re not doing the job.”

Recently, Anne Fege wrote an article we reposted entitled, “San Diego Trees Are Going, Going …”:

In recent decades, trees are being lost in older neighborhoods to infill development, with limited tree protection or replacement required by newly approved code changes. Other older trees, such as Torrey pines, have “outgrown” their sidewalk or yard spaces; are uprooted in storms and high winds; die because they aren’t watered deeply (once, each month without rain); or have to be removed because of public safety risks.

The vice-chair of the OB Planning Board told the Rag that over the last 5 years, the city has cut down nearly all the trees on his block and have planted only one.

On the good  news side of this story, San Diego city residents can request a free street tree by filling out an application at sandiego.gov/trees. That website also has details about the city’s urban forest.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Pat S October 4, 2023 at 4:09 pm

Given the fact, all City department Directors and Asst. Directors work at the will of the Strong Mayor Form of Government, not a City manager, all department heads want to keep their 100K+ jobs, so will do as the mayor says or wants. The voters made a huge mistake in changing the way SD government is run, when they voted for a Strong Mayor form of government. Too made we have a thoughtless mayor, a career politician and far removed from common sense, or budget management. The mayor is also supportive and pushing for destroying older homes, with lawns, shrubs, trees, and replacing them with ugly flat faced, cheap looking but expensive, multi family dwelling units with no trees and plenty of concrete to absorb and radiate heat.


Mateo October 5, 2023 at 7:29 am



Frank Gormlie October 5, 2023 at 12:03 pm

Have to agree Mateo, but could you write in lower case in the future.


Mateo October 5, 2023 at 3:48 pm

When fellow San Diegans hit the very nail on the head like Pat S has here, I feel as if we need to shout it from the rooftops.

I need not remind all San Diegans, but the Strong Mayor form of government was implemented in the same election that we elected Donna Frye Mayor, prior to a Judge tossing nearly 4000 ballots with Donna Frye’s name handwritten for Mayor that were thrown out giving Kevin Faulconer the Mayorship. That’s when our struggles really began. I will try to limit the capitalization, but I cannot make any promises.


retired botanist October 4, 2023 at 5:37 pm

Ok, well, y’all knew I was going to comment, right?! But honestly, the above narrative pretty much captures it all, and the exercise of hitting my head against the wall, REPEATEDLY, has worn me out. As Fege captioned, and btw kudos to her for mightily trying over these past 10 years, the story has worn a deep groove in the brains of those of us who care. I’m just going to say right here, and delete me if you will, Widener has done NO ONE any service on behalf of what used to be San Diego’s pretty significant canopy of specimen trees! At this point, bring back that former guy from Michigan or wherever, who had little knowledge of the importance of Torrey pines! This guy? All he wants to do is smear ‘threat to life and limb’ clause or whatever, who cares/Its gone!”
Midway, gone. Pepper trees gone. Palm trees? Gone. Literally anyone who has an issue with any standing tree in their way? Ah, its “threat to life and limb…” I always go back to the master plans (hullo? these are certified documents!) for these communities, in which the existing, community trees are frequently cited as to be preserved for a variety of reasons like view shed, aesthetics, shade and so on. Sigh. My rinse and repeat is running out. I’m sorry, San Diego. This is just so wrong. The 10 million is mostly going to be wasted, either planting junk trees like jacaranda or other, less-functioning exotics, and will certainly not be spent on the long-ovedue actual mitigation for specimen trees already removed. Once again, shame SD. And local folks, watch your back on your trees, b/c your’s are next if they get in the way!


nostalgic October 5, 2023 at 11:23 am

Do they really have to plant trees with the money? Can they spend it to count trees? Can they spend it to evaluate what areas need trees most? Can they spend it to create a new “Specialty Tree” Department in the City? I am sure creative people have even more ideas about how to spend it.


Frank Gormlie October 5, 2023 at 12:03 pm

Ah dunno. But there are chimes within the city and elsewhere that are dissing palm trees. Sure, there are problems with palms but ….


retired botanist October 5, 2023 at 4:10 pm

Nostalgic- if I recall, there was actually a pretty interesting software program that did just that; was applied to quantifying and identifying the volume and density of SD’s tree canopy. I remember attending a ‘launch’ for this back in ca. 2017? It was all (and presumably a fair amt of $ spent at the time) in aid of SD’s promise/goal/mission of increasing the urban canopy by 30% or some such. But, like CFAB, like the Heritage Tree program, like the now, dusty, promised/required mitigation for the Torrey pine removals, its all been swept downstream. This $10 million ain’t going nowhere except into the hidden pockets of people who have no intention of actually increasing the canopy w/ anything other than wilted, horticultural, eventually doomed to death, seedlings. Mark my words! Check out Saratoga for the pitiful mitigation to date! :-(


chris schultz October 11, 2023 at 1:03 pm

Trees require water and this city flushed 11 billion gallons of it down the Hodges creek and now wants to raise rates for imported water. Handing a $10M lottery ticket to these buffoons is tragic.


Vern October 4, 2023 at 7:08 pm

What ever happened to the all “new” tree planting at Sunset Cliffs Natural Park?

From Sunset Cliffs Natural Park Master Plan (Final July 2005):

“… Tree Retention and Removal
Gradually replace high maintenance, aged and/or diseased
trees. Where shade, taller screening or view definition is desired
in the upland portion of the Hillside Park, introduce Torrey
Pines (Pinus torreyana) or Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia)
on a limited basis…

…Plant native trees in upland portion of Hillside Park to provide
shade, screen undesirable taller elements or frame, but not
block views (exclude trees at Linear Park). Provide limited
native tree plantings, such as Torrey Pine or Coast Live Oak….

… Replace dead and diseased trees with groupings of Pinus
torreyana (Torrey Pine) and Quercus agrifolia (Coast Live
Oak) to frame hillside views….

… Strengthen screening buffer along Park boundary through
use of native trees…


Vern October 4, 2023 at 7:12 pm

From SD City Website:

“… Benefits of Trees
Children sitting in a treeBy preserving and protecting mature trees on private property, on our streets and in our parks, we will continue to help renew and enhance San Diego’s urban forest for future generations. Our urban forest provides us with many long-term environmental, social and economic benefits…

… A single large tree can release up to 400 gallons of water into the atmosphere each day.
Tree foliage filters dust and can help remove toxic pollutants from the atmosphere. The foliage captures and removes a wide range of smog-producing compounds such as ozone, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, airborne ammonia and some sulfur dioxide.
Mature trees help to cool and freshen the air we breathe. Not only do they moderate the air temperature, but through photosynthesis, their leaves take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen for us to breath. A single, fully grown sycamore tree can transform 26 pounds of carbon dioxide into life-giving oxygen every year…”



Deb porter October 5, 2023 at 9:29 pm

How do we get rid of ‘city forester’ Widmer…..he apparently hates trees on OB/PL….maybe other areas too, but he’s really killing our canopy. The most recent transgression is cutting down the trees on Sports Arena near Dixieline…..is there no one or no way to stop the city’s arbitrary agreement to cut down trees which are not diseased, only inconvenient?..


sealintheSelkirks October 6, 2023 at 8:17 pm

The trees, if they could talk, probably would have a term for this kind of government employee (Widener). And I think I would agree with them; cold-hearted killer. Bald-faced liar seems appropriate, too, don’t you think?

Another name for this profession slapped on this type of human is ‘Forester’ of which I’m plenty familiar with up here by the Canadian Border in the mountains. Clear-cutting by corporations that leave gi-freaking-gantic scars of rubble covering hundreds of acres of crushed and churned-up dirt on the mountains that I can see in every direction.

Like the worst case of mange you’ve ever seen but on hillsides instead of a dog…except it’s the planet we live on. Down there they cover it all with buildings, asphalt, and concrete. At least up here it’s still dirt that has the potential of being able to grow something…

That label, forester, has a synonym. Logger. Which also seems rather appropriate for down there in my hometown since that is what has been happening to the trees it seems.

I read a new term for what people like him are doing. It’s Necro-capitalism. Doesn’t that sound nifty?

Deb porter: yeah, how does anybody get rid of these kind of people?



retired botanist October 7, 2023 at 6:09 pm

Seal! :-) Yep! And appropriately, while SD jettisoned the former guy; or, maybe he jettisoned himself —I think he realized, sadly after a # of tree disasters, that this landscape was not his forte. But this “new” guy- not all that ‘new’, since he’s already responsible for a number of questionable fellings, seems to be doubling down on the stupid clause of “life and limb”-whether its folks’ backyards or sidewalks, or the FAA’s ability to see the runway… whaat? You’re flying over homes, but the palm canopy is a problem?!! A homeless person is tripping over ficus roots?! Honestly? Its a keystone cops scenario. It has NOTHING to do with the real “threat to life and limb”. Just wait til climate crisis has real people suffering from heat exhaustion in our urban areas…


sealintheSelkirks October 7, 2023 at 7:06 pm

I just loved the mental image you gave me of giant flying bricks full of people getting so close to the ground that palm trees need cut down to provide ‘air space’ for them to not crash. Ludicrous, wasn’t it?

No doubt that life & limb heat thing has already started to happen…all over the planet. People are dying of the heat everywhere, both hemispheres and all continents, and SD is NOT immune to the reality of the ravages of industrialization’s consequences. It just happens to be tucked down in a corner where it isn’t as bad. YET.

And with hired gunslingers like him doing some higher up the political food chain’s dirty work by just doubling down on stupid (or planned destruction for a hidden profitable agenda perhaps?) while the planet burns ever hotter, it sure isn’t going to get any better for the people of San Diego. Remember, San Diego IS IN A DESERT, folks! Dry, dusty, hardly any shade to be found anywhere until just a couple hundred years ago.

There is such a lack of critical thinking going on, such a lack of awareness of the ‘precautionary principle’ in worldwide society as a whole not just San Diego, that this little blip on the radar about a few dumb trees that I’m assuming most residents don’t give a rat’s ass about, shows a tiny smidgen of the enormous problem with the foresight lacking in our species. Spread across the world it’s a huge problem.

For those that haven’t read this, I submit that this IS coming to you folks down there lazing about on the beaches and waves I spent half my life on:

Steamy September caps record-shattering summer — and scientists warn trend shows no sign of stopping

‘No one has ever seen climate monitoring data like this,’ EU climate expert says


So go ahead, Widener the Logger, cut it all down and make the city even worse of the heat island it already is. Bluntly, enjoy the nice cool weather San Diego has luxuriated in recently because I’m sorry to see this coming but you really ain’t seen nothing yet in terms of heat.



retired botanist October 11, 2023 at 6:07 pm

Whelp, its bangin’ our heads against the wall, Seal. Widener must be cut from some strange cloth, is all I can say for a “forester”. I mean, there isn’t
even a FOREST IN San Diego, so WTF is THAT title all about?! As a botanist, yeah, I get the overlap of marketing concept with “forester” and “urban canopy” and all that, but seriously?! If it were all about words and titles, ok, call it what you want. But in practice? Oy, read the room, if not the original desert habitat, and preserve every possible contributor, especially those individuals that have been functioning for decades..sidewalk disruption notwithstanding. Its not that hard!


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