Maybe it’s no big shock that some Ocean Beach residents recently staged a public fight to save a tree.
We don’t exactly have a forest of them.
The Ocean Beach tree, a 73-foot Torrey pine, pulled heartstrings because it had stood for decades. However, it had been badly damaged by El Niño storms, and the city of San Diego felt it was in danger of falling.
So, sadly, that’s one more tree gone from the city’s inventory, which is well below where it needs to be. According to estimates, San Diego streets have about 200,000 trees.
We have space for four times that many.
One measurement used to judge the health of a city’s tree population is called the urban tree canopy. It’s the percentage of ground that’s covered by trees.
For San Diego, that estimate ranges from 4.2 percent to 7 percent, according to the city’s Urban Forest Management Plan, which calls for aggressive steps to replenish our trees.
The recently adopted Climate Action Plan calls for a tree canopy of 15 percent by the year 2020. It calls for a canopy of 35 percent by 2035.
The good news? We may have more trees than we think. The last estimate of the number of trees was done years ago with older technology, said Jeremy Barrick, the city’s urban forestry program manager.
Using a grant from the state, the city is having the University of Vermont’s Spatial Analysis Lab do a more comprehensive study of our canopy, and those results should be ready by the end of the year, Barrick said.
They may show we have a healthier canopy than originally estimated.
“I’m hopeful,” he said, noting the statewide average for urban areas is 15 percent.
Those findings will be critical in how the city moves forward when it comes to increasing the canopy, Barrick said. It will show where tree coverage is poor and where it’s thriving, so the city can create a strategic plan for planting.
Benefits of a larger canopy are many. Indeed, there are lots of reasons to hug a tree. For one, they absorb carbon dioxide, which reduces the greenhouse effect.
They also provide shade, which reduces home and business energy costs. And cooler streets last longer than ones bathed in sunshine. They don’t crack as often, so the time between resurfacing can be extended.
Studies even show that trees help reduce crime because they enhance neighborhoods. Also, people are more likely to drive more slowly on a tree-lined street. The trees make us think the street is narrower.
“We’re at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding what trees do for us,” Barrick said.
He noted that one study showed pregnant women who live in neighborhoods with lots of trees are less likely to have underweight babies.
Some San Diego neighborhoods are more lacking in trees than others. In 2002, the city did an inventory of our trees — the last time one was done — to see where we stood. Then, the Kensington-Talmadge area did best, with about 88 trees per mile of street.
Del Mar Mesa, east of Carmel Valley, had no trees.
Downtown was in the top 10, which might be surprising, given all the development. It had 4,852 trees.
Ocean Beach — where that protest broke out to protect the Torrey pine — had 2,357 trees.
But that’s minus one now.
The tree was ultimately removed, with part of the trunk being donated to a local artist. Branches were left for residents to take.
Still, some residents were so upset with the failing tree’s condition that they formed a new organization, Friends of Peninsula Trees. They believe it was not just damage from winter storms that did the tree in.
“The failing condition of the tree is directly a result of the neglect, improper maintenance and the unqualified tree service that was subcontracted through the City of San Diego,” the group said in a press release.
The city has had problems keeping trees trimmed because of budget woes. In 2013, the then-chair of the city’s Community Forest Advisory Board wrote to then-Council President Todd Gloria, asking for a host of reforms. The letter stated:
“With reduced budget levels over the past five years, funds for street tree maintenance were used for emergency tree removals instead of inspections, tree trimming and pruning, and tree replacement.”
However, the city has been re-investing in its urban forestry program, Barrick said. Not only was he hired but also the city is dedicating more resources to reach the Climate Action Plan goals.
Just how that will be done won’t be known until the city has a better idea of its current tree situation. It is estimated that San Diego has about 1 million trees, including those on private land.
Barrick is hoping to plant as many native trees as possible, but planting has to be done strategically. Having a diverse tree population is important because it lessens the chance of diseases and pests wiping out trees in big numbers.
One of San Diego’s problems is that our region wasn’t all that tree-rich to begin with. As the Urban Forest Management Plan notes: “Like most of Southern California, the majority of San Diego’s vegetation was originally occupied by chaparral and sage scrub — plant communities with mostly drought-resistant shrubs.”
Development only compounded the problem by removing vegetation. That’s why we need trees.
Barrick understands why people can get so emotional about trees. They grow up with them. They see them every day.
“In a subtle way, humans are connected to trees,” he said.
He can relate, he added. He grew up in the Midwest, and a tree from his neighborhood had to be removed and replaced with a younger one to diversify the tree population.
He understood the reasoning, yet it still bummed him.
“But my kids now get to go back and see that young tree grow,” he said.