How I Became a Tree Hugger: SF’s Urban Canopy Crisis

by Zach K.

“Save the 24th St. trees? …Hi, would you like to save the 24th St. trees?”

            A bearded activist in a wheelchair is handing out flyers at the 16th and Mission BART plaza while a pink sunset fades across the skyline.  Passengers scurry past, traveling their daily commute with hive-like purpose and intention.

“The city wants to cut down 48 trees along 24th street…”

Eventually, an exiting passenger stops to ask a very sensible question: “Why?”

Why is the city of San Francisco spending thousands of dollars of taxpayer money to cut down thousands of our public trees?

            Well, the person in the wheelchair handing out flyers is me and I’m here to answer that very sensible question.  But first, a little background on what is happening:

            Unknown to most people, City Hall is currently at war with old growth trees.  You may have noticed a yellow notice or two, or three, taped onto some trees in your neighborhood. These inconspicuous notices are the city’s way of informing you that this tree is about to be killed.

            All over San Francisco, trees are being destroyed by the Department of Public Works (DPW) and their underlings at Bureau of Urban Forestry (BUF).  According to the 2019 Annual Urban Forest Report, this past year San Francisco lost 2,507 trees[i].  Yes, you read that right – in the middle of a global climate crisis, the bureaucrats at DPW thought it was right to kill off more than two-thousand five-hundred and seven trees!

A row of cut up healthy tree stumps is found along San Francisco’s 16th Street in the Mission district

            San Francisco actually has the smallest urban canopy of any major city in the United States.  According to the 2012 San Francisco Urban Tree Canopy Analysis, less than 13.7% of our city is actually covered with trees.[ii]  We fall behind Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York and are rapidly getting worse.  One large park named after our beloved Golden Gate can’t make up for a city that is rapidly turning into a concrete desert.

              I try not to jumble off too many statistics while the perplexed BART passenger continues to stare at me. They repeat, “…but why?”  As with most things related to City Hall, it has to do with two common annoyances: money and lawsuits.

            In 2016 there was a proposition on the ballot called Street Tree SF (Prop E). This measure, pushed by gentrifying property owners, moved ownership of San Francisco’s trees away from the responsibility of landlords and onto local government.  Many tree activists saw this is a good thing, since trees might be better cared for using a city budget flush from the tech economy boom. It passed with an overwhelming 79% of the vote.[iii]

            However, when this proposition got into the hands of DPW and BUF to enact voters wishes, they saw an opportunity for spending less money.  The tree that costs the city the least amount of money is a tree that isn’t there.  A tree that doesn’t need watering, pruning, sidewalk maintenance, or graffiti removal. A tree that isn’t there won’t have a falling branch in a storm which may be hazardous or make a mess somewhere.

            Consequently, as it so often happens, the lawyers and the bean counters got together and decided it was best for the city’s liability and its budget if they could just cut down all those pesky old trees, especially the old ficus trees.[iv]  DPW and BUF refuse to prioritize the value that trees bring in absorbing CO2 and reducing air pollution,  providing habitat for birds and other wildlife, improving storm water drainage, cooling our sidewalks and preventing urban heat islands with shade, or beautifying our city.

            The increased sun protection and air quality improvements that these trees provide also help the elderly and disabled who are often the first victims of hazardous air conditions such as those created by 2017 and 2018’s massive wildfires. They are also increasingly important to our curbside neighbors, most of whom are disabled and need fresh air and shade while living outside in a polluted urban environment. 

            Destroying foliage and greenery is often supported by law enforcement as well, who wish to survey, ticket, harass, and arrest curbside residents sleeping in the parks or underneath trees.  These behaviors are not without precedent: during the gentrifying tech bubble of the late 90’s, Mayor Brown deployed police helicopters with infra-red cameras to locate and remove homeless encampments from Golden Gate park.[v]  Obviously, destroying the urban canopy is easier and less expensive than flying helicopters over parks to track people down.

            Mohammed Nuru, director of DPW, approved a recent budget that is inadequate for planting new trees but provides plenty of money for destroying old ones.[vi]  City arborists like Chris Buck essentially write death certificates for trees with their “expertise,” telling scary stories about the way branches fall.  Meanwhile, public relations people like Nancy Sarieh claim that “community outreach” was done (despite the fact that hardly anyone in the neighborhood I talk to knows about this), giving the illusion of public consent to mass deforestation.  Their tactics for increasing tree destruction also include inferring that trees cannot be cared for properly due to homeless people, needles, and feces.[vii] 

            Adding insult to injury, the “public” notification process for tree killings has failed to include people with disabilities.  People who are sick beyond the 30-day notice period, people who are blind or low vision, or people who have limited mobility. The only way to protest the tree removals, up until about two weeks ago, has been to physically canvas our neighborhoods looking for yellow notices – many of which are destroyed by rain or vandalism (or missing in the first place).  It took a full year of advocating and notifying DPW of ADA violations before an attempt was made to address this issue.[viii]

            Unsurprisingly, the 24th St. proposed tree destruction has not been met with fanfare.[ix]  At the June 5th hearing at City Hall over 50 people commented in support of this defining neighborhood canopy.[x]  These comments helped even though this preliminary hearing is judged by the same department wanting to cut down the trees.  The “compromise” DPW offered was to reduce the destruction from 72 to 48 trees.

            However, as Yoda has said, “there is another.”  There is one last hurrah for saving the trees on 24th Street, and that is the SF Board of Appeals.  Myself and three other appellants recently filed lengthy quasi-legal briefs with photo evidence and other documentation concerning DPW staff negligence, ADA violations, poor outreach, improper care, and other misconduct.[xi]

            One of the common bribes for destroying old growth trees is to offer new “replacement” trees.  In exchange for killing a healthy 30+ year-old ficus tree, which is a likely habitat for birds and adapted to the harsh urban environment, we might get a sapling in about 5 years.[xii]

            Life for young trees in San Francisco is difficult though, and with a city government that won’t prioritize their care, they experience a high mortality rate.[xiii]  The trees that do survive are usually cared for by Friends of the Urban Forest, a non-profit with unpaid volunteers doing tree plantings and maintenance.  With DPW’s negligence, the burden of street tree care falls on the shoulders of these committed volunteers instead of being budgeted and paid for by the city.[xiv]

            This deforestation in San Francisco is just one part of the disease of gentrification that is afflicting our wonderful city.  It goes hand-in-hand with the mass-eviction epidemic and the subsequently skyrocketing unhoused population. Sadly, many of our public officials, wealthy landlords, and influential business moguls only want SF streets in a shinier, Valencia-ish, more sterilized, Westfield-Shopping-Mall kind-of-way. Removing old-growth trees is simply the next logical step after removing old-growth residents.  The “public” process of defending either of them is expensive, vague, and layered in bureaucratic red tape.  It is a tidy way of avoiding accountability while maintaining the illusion of a democratic process.

            With over 70% of our curbside neighbors being previous San Francisco housed residents, it’s getting harder to blame homelessness on immigration or “not trying hard enough.”[xv]  However, some outlets like the SF Chronicle are spreading misleading statistics that infer 95% of the homeless “suffer from alcohol use disorder.”[xvi]  Linking homelessness with substance abuse can often be used to promote victim-blaming.[xvii]

            In the same vein, Muhammed Nuru, Chris Buck, and other DPW lackeys spread fictional and improperly documented statistics on old-growth trees.[xviii]  Apparently, the old ficus trees “aren’t trying hard enough,” either.

            Community residents are getting together though, and we’re doing what we can to fight back.  We could use your help, too! Write to the SF Board of Appeals (boardofappeals@sfgov.org), or better yet, come to the public meetings to share a two-minute comment about why you disapprove of this deforestation.  The meeting to save the 24th St. trees is currently set for Wednesday, January 8th, 2020, at City Hall, Room 416 at 5:00pm.  There is also a meeting of the same kind to save trees in Hayes Valley on November 6th, 2019 (same room and time).

            You can also learn more by connecting with the SF Forrest Alliance at https://sfforest.org/ or by reaching out to me directly through my website at: https://zkarnazes.wixsite.com/access or by checking out my Youtube videos here:


[i] https://docdro.id/ufMNHAP

(2019 Annual Urban Forest Report)

[ii] https://docdro.id/859wkOF

(2014 San Francisco Urban Forest Plan – See Page 9)

[iii] https://docdro.id/eDaUUS9

(Street Tree SF – Frequently Asked Questions, taken from the Public Works website on 10/29/2019)

[iv] https://www.change.org/p/bureau-of-urban-forestry-chris-buck-save-the-trees-around-the-main-library  

(A current online petition to save SF’s ficus trees)

[v] https://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Brown-shows-polish-humility-3111448.php

(SF Gate, 1/04/1998 by Gregory Lewis  “The incident sparked Brown to suggest using helicopters equipped with infrared sensors to fly over Golden Gate Park at night and help root out the encampments.”)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homelessness_in_the_San_Francisco_Bay_Area

(see “Willie Brown (1996-2004)

http://www.foundsf.org/index.php?title=Homeless_policy_failure

(see “1997”)

[vi] http://sanfrancisco.granicus.com/ViewPublisher.php?view_id=129

(On August 27th, the Urban Forestry Council said it has not budgeted to even replace the trees being removed 1:1)

[vii] https://sanfrancisco.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=6&clip_id=32255

(SF Board of Appeals Meeting at City Hall on 1/23/2019, see the comments and presentations:

·       2 hrs, 29mins: “The library really cannot control the camping and the activities that go on around the main library all during the night, you’ll find people occupying the space underneath the ficus almost 24/7” – Roberto Lombardi, Facilities Division director of the SF Main Library, arguing that ficus should be removed due to homeless encampments posing a safety risk.

·       2 hrs, 49 mins: “the amount of needles and other challenges” would make it impossible and “would attract a nuisance more than be of help” – Chris Buck inferring that the homeless population is partly responsible for poor tree maintenance, instead of DPW neglecting their responsibilities for installing proper water irrigation systems.

·       3 hrs, 12 mins: “I find it odd that we are attempting to mitigate the homelessness crisis by removing trees” – Public comment response

[viii] http://sfpublicworks.org/tree-removal-notifications

(this brand new removal notice page took over a year of advocacy work to create. Anyone can now go online to look at the trees planned to be removed and submit a simple email to urbanforestry@sfdpw.org to protest a removal. A single email automatically triggers a hearing for each tree, which might explain why DPW was resistant to including this accessible process.)

[ix] https://missionlocal.org/2019/06/mission-residents-oppose-ficus-tree-removal/

(Mission Local, 6/6/2019, by Ricky Rodas – article on the hearing for the 24th Street trees)

[x] https://docdro.id/xIJBOX4

 (Public Works Order No. 201771 – decision (before appeal) for the 24th Street trees)

[xi] https://docdro.id/7LglknM

(I detailed the ADA violations in my appeals brief submitted to the SF Board of Appeals),

and here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lR59R27raiM (2min, 10 sec)

(an additional 24th St. tree appeal brief submitted by Joshua Klipp. This brief includes very useful information and statistics.)

[xii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8-0hLea8c9I

(Chris Buck responding to a complaint to DPW for not planting trees promised 4 years ago.  The trees were finally planted this past week, 5 years later.)

[xiii] https://www.fs.fed.us/nrs/pubs/gtr/gtr_nrs158.pdf

Urban Tree Mortality: a Primer on Demographic Approaches, March, 2016 by Lara A. Roman, John J. Battles, Joe R. McBride, “…survival of new young trees added to the system was fairly low, with only 83 percent of new trees surviving for 2 years.” – a study of Oakland’s urban trees which have a much more hospitable environment.

[xiv] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D0ArSA3dMfg

 (Public comment from a Friends of the Urban Forest volunteer at SF Board of Appeals Meeting at City Hall on 1/23/2019)

[xv] http://hsh.sfgov.org/wp-content/uploads/FINAL-PIT-Report-2019-San-Francisco.pdf

(San Francisco’s official homeless count statistics found that over 70% of SF’s homeless population were previously housed residents in San Francisco.)

[xvi] https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/SF-counts-4-000-homeless-addicted-and-mentally-14412061.php

(SF Chronicle, 9/4/2019, by Dominic Fracassa and Trisha Thadani – this paper opposed increasing the city’s shelters in 2018 (prop C) and recently published some very misleading “statistics.” The title of the article claims half the amount of homeless that were found by the official San Francisco count while also lumping homelessness in with substance abuse. 

https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/Opponents-of-SF-s-Prop-C-homeless-proposition-13763825.php

(SF Chronicle, 4/12/2019, by Dominic Fracassa: “November’s Prop. C imposes an average of roughly 0.5 percent in gross receipts tax… The Chronicle, is subject to the tax.”

Ironically, the paper itself is partly to blame for the “Unclear Timeline” in the 9/4/2019 article, due to their opposition to 2018’s prop C, which would provide new shelters and improved homeless services.)

[xvii] https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2081&context=jssw

(The Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, Sept, 1993 by Elizabeth Tracy Randy Stoecker –

“…a social worker [placed] responsibility for homelessness squarely upon the individual.

‘This may be kind of a rash statement, but people… become homeless…because they screwed up their lives in some way. Whether it’s due to chemical dependency, whether it’s due to lack of budgeting…it’s something that they’ve created…it’s their dance… it really is….”

this disturbing quote from a social worker aptly conveys the prejudiced attitude of victim-blaming when homelessness is lumped in with substance addiction.

[xviii] https://www.sfexaminer.com/opinion/no-tree-removals-without-justification/

(San Francisco Examiner, 10/20/2019 – article on database and notification issues with Bureau of Urban Forestry. Chris Buck also admitted to errors in notification during the SF Board of Appeals meeting on 1-23-2019)