letter to the editor

Letter to the Editor: Save the San Francisco Trees

Do we want Market Street without any trees or with most trees removed? Do we want trees removed from Van Ness Avenue under the Van Ness BRT plan, or the ficus trees adjacent to the Main Library taken away? Should trees be removed from Market Street under the Better Market Street plan?

The Library trees are supposed to be replaced, according to the DPW Order, so we’ll see what happens. The Van Ness trees are also supposed to be replaced but SFMTA has already removed more trees than they were permitted to because of shoddy construction practices which killed trees slated for preservation.  Unfortunately, more than a dozen ‘new’ trees are already dead for lack of watering and many more old and new trees will be dead soon if current maintenance practices continue. Part of the reason our tree canopy is in such poor shape is because of the disaggregation of removals (i.e. we’re just removing a few trees here, and a few there.) 

For a variety of reasons, San Francisco is on course to take out a lot of trees and is not planting replacements.  One prominent example is the planned removal of trees on Market Street. Planting trees is not the only issue.  Maintenance of newly planted trees has been woefully inadequate and many saplings, throughout the City,  have died or are dying through lack of watering. Look around your neighborhood at the trees planted in the last ten years.  On my block,  Friends of the Urban Forest planted five trees; two are dead, two are failing and only one is thriving.

On January 23, 2020, the BART Board of Directors approved a contract to construct 22 canopies over entrances at BART stations along Market Street.  The contract calls for the removal of 32 trees on Market St. Here are some excerpts from recent Public Works Order No. 205249:

photo credit: bart.gov

Tree removal was approved for the construction of canopy structures over the BART/MUNI entrances. At the hearing, the BART representative, Mark Dana, testified that the trees needed to be removed due to the construction of the new BART/MUNI canopy entrances. The new entrances would provide many benefits to the community including the ability providing security and protection. He stated the main reason to remove the trees was a matter of public safety and that the proximity of the trees to the new canopies creates a hazard for access to the top of the entrances.Several members the public strongly contested the removal due to the good health of the trees, the value of the trees to combat the climate crisis, the issues of mass transit and the destruction of trees, that the trees have been poorly maintained, that the design should have incorporated the existing trees, and because the trees provide a habitat for the Western Swallowtail Butterfly.

After consideration of correspondence and testimony provided at the hearing, the recommendation is to uphold and approve the decision to remove all thirty-two (32) street trees.

And this pretty much tells the story of what happens to trees on City streets. Trees are not taken into account and are not valued. Members of the public strongly protested but to no avail. Trees would not be a problem if they were central to the design process, as they should be. The values we profess to hold dear in San Francisco, “… the value of trees to combat the climate crisis, … trees provide habitat,” etc, and our public commitment to planting and maintaining trees, are not at the center of the discussion. We need a tree-centric approach.  

photo credit: bart.gov

The most striking thing about the Market Street removal orders is that, in every instance, the tree removals are without replacement. That is at odds with many of the City’s stated policies that have the goal of conserving and increasing the tree canopy in San Francisco.  Here is what the Bureau of Urban Forestry, an agency of San Francisco Public Works, says in their Mission Statement:

Mission and Vision:  The Bureau of Urban Forestry enhances the City’s green infrastructure by preserving and growing the trees and plants that make up our urban forest. 

photo credit: bart.gov

Trees are more than just beautiful additions to urban life. They are an essential component of the City’s ecosystem and provide enormous environmental and social benefits. They help manage stormwater, reduce air pollution, sequester carbon, save energy, increase property values, provide wildlife habitat, calm traffic, provide a more pleasant pedestrian experience and benefit human health. 

A more detailed look at the individual trees slated for removal reveals many areas of concern.  Of the 32 trees in Public Works order 205249, 16 are healthy, mature trees; 3 trees are already gone, 3 trees are dead, 8 trees are either vandalized or failing and need to be removed, and 2 are not next to a BART entrance but next to a MUNI bus shelter and clearly would not be a safety concern for BART.  What does it say about the City’s record-keeping on trees that Public Works has included in the Work Order, 3 trees that are already gone and 2 that are not within the scope of the project?  Why were the dead trees not removed and replaced before?  Why were the 3 missing trees not replaced?  Why were the 8 trees that need to be removed not removed and replaced before now?  Why are trees failing and would maintenance and watering have made a difference?  

One of the mature, healthy trees approved for removal.
One of the mature, healthy trees approved for removal.

Importance of Trees

Healthy tree-lined streets are a key component of our urban forest. An estimated 125,000 trees grow along San Francisco’s streets (street trees). These trees contribute to a more walkable, livable and sustainable city. They remove pollutants from air and water. They create greener and more vibrant neighborhoods. They make streets more enjoyable to walk and shop along. Street trees connect us to nature and enhance the quality of our daily lives. – From the SF Public Works Urban Forest Plan.

The removal of the healthy trees is not yet set in stone.  Several appeals by concerned citizens will be heard via Zoom at the Board of Appeals and hopefully, healthy trees can be saved and ailing or absent trees replaced.  Members of the public should email letters of support/opposition to boardofappeals@sfgov.org, at least one week prior to the October 27 Hearing, and reference Appeal # 21-077 or “BART tree appeals,” and they will be distributed to Board members prior to the hearing.

We need to conserve our mature, healthy trees and we need to replace any trees that are removed in a ratio of 10 new trees planted for every 1 tree removed if we are going to enhance our tree canopy and fight climate change.  An important value of trees in the Urban Forest is their ability to reduce the amount of reflected heat bouncing back into the atmosphere.

Heat islands are urbanized areas that experience higher temperatures than outlying areas. Structures such as buildings, roads, and other infrastructure absorb and re-emit the sun’s heat more than natural landscapes such as forests and water bodies. Urban areas, where these structures are highly concentrated and greenery is limited, become “islands” of higher temperatures relative to outlying areas.- EPA

We need to plant more trees and take better care of the street trees we have. We can do this!

David Romano

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