First Parks in Peril, Now Trees in Trouble

This piece is something of a follow-up to my January 2011 story "Parks in Peril," about the obliteration of Oakland's public works agency's park maintenance budget. In "Oakland Overgrown," which likewise appeared on the cover of the Express, I look at the effects of deep budget cuts on the city's Tree Services Division. The gist: No more preventive maintenance, and no more new trees. The result: Increasingly serious hazards and threats to public safety from trees, plus a reliance on volunteer organizations to keep greening Oakland, all in a city named for a native tree. How's that for irony?

"Oakland Overgrown"

More than 250,000 trees along city streets are growing out of control because of deep budget cuts.

By Nate Seltenrich

On a quiet block in North Oakland's Fairview Park neighborhood, a four-man crew has assembled to trim Chinese elm trees, whose branches overhang the narrow roadway from both sides and nearly meet in the middle. The full canopy gives 63rd Street a stately, peaceful look. But it also poses a safety hazard; untrimmed, top-heavy trees are at risk of dropping limbs on cars, bicyclists, and pedestrians — or, worse yet, toppling during storms. These trees have been identified as high-priority targets; ignoring them for too much longer could result in property damage or personal injury, a liability the city can ill-afford.

Perched high in the basket of a cherry picker, one worker wields a buzzing chainsaw against limbs that extend perilously far from the tree's base, overhanging the street by as little as ten feet — four feet beyond the accepted maximum. Branches fall to the pavement below, where two more workers gather them and feed them into a wood chipper. A couple houses down, the crew's supervisor looks on from a white Public Works Agency pickup truck and gives word when it's time to move on to the next tree. Each one takes nearly thirty minutes to trim.

Some blocks in this verdant part of town have as many as two dozen full-grown trees apiece. Then there's the other nearly 38,000 street trees dispersed throughout Oakland's flats, another 200,000 in the hills, and untold thousands in the city's medians and one hundred parks, all of which fall under the purview of Oakland's Tree Services Division. These four workers represent almost a quarter of the department's total staffing, and they'll never catch up.

In one fell swoop in November 2008, the Tree Services Division shed 40 percent of its workforce — a reduction from 32 to 19 employees, including the loss of four drivers, four trimmers, and three supervisors. The deep budget cuts forced the department to curtail one of its most essential services: routine trimming and pruning, which help keep trees from becoming overgrown to the point that they require immediate attention.

Now, the city named for a native tree is forced to regard its arboreal citizens as hazards, tending only to those that pose a direct threat to public safety by blocking signs, buckling concrete, impeding emergency vehicles, or threatening to drop limbs or fall altogether.

At the same time, the tree services department's remaining employees have been pitted in a losing battle against the hundreds of thousands of trees growing in the public right of way. Particularly during the winter and early spring, when wind, rain, and saturated soil conspire to bring even healthy trees to the ground, crews shuttle from emergency to emergency, always putting out fires but rarely gaining any ground.

Full and untrimmed trees have a higher risk of falling over or losing limbs, and nature tends to take care of whatever maintenance we neglect — often with destructive results. Between trimming the Fairview Park trees over a number of days in mid-March, the same crew was diverted to clean up a massive fallen tree in the hills near Redwood Regional Park and remove an overgrown tree whose roots were rippling pavement outside a nearby North Oakland pool.

As maintenance needs compound across the city, the crews' inability to perform preventative maintenance may result in an environment where hazards are more the rule than the exception. "They look okay, but that's today," explained Parks and Building Services Manager Jim Ryugo. "Tomorrow, as they grow bigger and fuller and nothing is done to them, what's the future?"

This year, as spring turns to summer and early fall, Oakland's worsening problem of overgrown trees likely will contribute to increased fire dangers in the hills, as fuel accumulates in tree tops. Indeed, after a wetter than normal winter, trees in the thickly wooded hills could grow into a potential nightmare for firefighters during a year in which the city plans to honor the twentieth anniversary of those killed in the worst disaster in East Bay history — the 1991 Oakland Hills Firestorm.

Oakland's tree dangers are almost certain to get worse before they get better. Mayor Jean Quan is currently grappling with a $46 million projected budget deficit, and there's a chance that more cuts could make it even tougher for the Tree Services Division to fulfill its duties. In fact, Quan issued a tentative proposal last week to slash all city services by 15 percent, including public works. "We've done the hard, and we've done the really hard, and now we're at the horrific," said Sue Piper, spokeswoman for Quan. "Everything's on the table."

Despite its severity, the evolving tree maintenance problem can be difficult to visualize. That's because on a human scale, trees grow slowly, and problems develop over years, not days. Still, the general direction of current trends is crystal clear: Today's maintenance reductions are tomorrow's hazards. And the longer they're allowed to persist, the more expensive and time-consuming they become to fix — not to mention the more potentially threatening to public safety.

"Trees do need maintenance, just like your vehicle, just like yourself," explained Robert Zahn, a supervisor in the Tree Services Division and a certified arborist. Young trees in particular should be pruned for proper growth habits and structure and to ensure the crown doesn't become top-heavy, which can contribute to leaning and eventually toppling, he said. Critical early-life pruning can dictate the tree's entire future, helping to avoid major repairs down the line. But thanks to the budget cuts in 2008, the city can't afford it anymore.

With older trees, regular maintenance involves removing overgrown limbs and foliage before they become hazardous, thinning and removing dead branches, and pruning for shape on a regular basis. Trees in parks should be trimmed every three to five years to maintain their appearance and safety, Zahn said. But the city can't afford to do any of that anymore, either.

Instead, an arborist now assesses all incoming complaints to the Tree Services Division and codes them by level of urgency. Priorities on hazards range from low (like a limb blocking a stop sign) to medium (broken branches on residential streets or sidewalks) to high (typically, trees that have fallen or may be on the verge). If a new incident report or maintenance request doesn't meet the city's criteria, it's ignored. "With our current staffing levels, we just can't keep up with the complaints," Ryugo said candidly.

Berkeley's tree staff, by contrast, has it much easier. According to Park Superintendent Sue Ferrera, the city currently employs ten workers in its Urban Forestry unit, who are responsible for new plantings and maintaining approximately 46,000 trees citywide: a ratio of 4,600 trees per employee. But in Oakland's Tree Services Division, nineteen employees — including administrators — oversee at least 250,000 trees, and vastly more once medians and parks are factored in. At minimum, that amounts to 13,000 trees per employee.

Even when Oakland's crews were fully staffed a few years ago, managing the city's massive number of trees was no easy task. Tree maintenance was driven more prominently by annual work schedules, but frequent complaints still resulted in a lot of jumping around, Ryugo said. Regular schedules were particularly important in cases like the Chinese elms that line many of North Oakland's more well-heeled streets. Each July, the trees can be counted on to hang their drooping, willowy limbs over sidewalks and streets, occasionally impeding tall trucks, scraping the tops of passenger cars, or obstructing walkways. Regular sweeps through the neighborhood, usually every 18 to 24 months, helped stem most complaints.

Ryugo said the goal at the time was to develop a maintenance pattern that divided the city into grids. Crews would sweep up and down blocks regardless of complaints, eliminating problems before they arose and trimming trees evenly to achieve a consistent, aesthetically pleasing appearance. These days, however, such systematic pruning is out of the question. Merely responding to the steady influx of hazard reports is difficult enough.

Making financial matters worse, as routine work-week maintenance is deferred, emergency weekend and late-night shifts may become more common, further taxing workers and reducing the department's projected savings by adding to overtime pay. On a recent stormy weekend, crews responded to 22 emergency calls, including a large number of downed trees. That burden is bound to increase in coming winters — and with it, the city's legal liability whenever property damage or personal injury results.

It's not always easy to see major tree failures coming, but there are a few tell-tale signs, Ryugo said. Uplifted soil around a trunk can signal that a tree's roots are being pulled loose by the weight of an overgrown canopy. Visible cracks in large limbs often foretell dangerous falls — but not always. And dead, twisted, and otherwise compromised branches have a higher risk of failure. The rest of the time, especially with large trees on urban streets, the key is to stay on top of preventative maintenance and hope for the best. Anything less may be waiting for a bad accident to happen.

Given Oakland's budget crisis, more tough choices lie ahead. And because of last year's layoffs and the city's continuing crime problems, there promises to be a strong push this spring to spare the police department from further budget cuts. The fire department also is insulated from deep budget reductions because of union contracts and Measure BB. Consequently, quality-of-life services, such as libraries, parks, and trees, could be relegated to the wrong end of the ledger.

However, for many residents, trees aren't just some line item in the city's budget. Instead, they view trees as crime fighters, too. The San Pablo Corridor Coalition, a community group founded in early 2010, uses greening efforts to improve its West Oakland neighborhood — and that means responding to illegal dumping, drug dealing, and even murders by planting Japanese maples, flowering cherries, and other ornamental trees. Its efforts seem to be working.

In recent years, the intersection of Myrtle and 30th streets had experienced multiple killings. Then community volunteers planted twenty trees in the area, and the murders stopped. When the neighborhood registered its first murder of 2011 at Market and 27th streets, they landscaped the whole block. And along Mead Avenue, amid a sea of concrete with a reputation as one of the city's deadliest blocks, the group planted another twelve trees in a neglected curbside planting strip, complete with moisture-retaining mulch. Since then the block has improved dramatically, with marked reductions in drug activity and no homicides since last spring. "I can't really tell you that planting trees is stopping murders," said co-founder Alex Miller-Cole, "but it's doing something."

At the very least, trees in urban areas have been shown to raise property values, help manage storm-water runoff, improve air quality, and even boost residents' moods. That's why trees are in such high demand among many property owners throughout Oakland. It's also why there's now an argument to be made that the city needs more trees even though it can't afford to take care of the ones it has.

Yet a reduction in the Tree Services Division's budget from $4.5 million in 2007 to $3.1 million today means the department has no money for new trees, either along streets or in public parks. Previously, the city provided free street trees, planted between the sidewalk and the road surface, to just about anyone who asked. It would even cut and remove concrete as needed, provide supplies for staking, and perform the installation. Now, nonprofit groups and volunteer community organizations like the San Pablo Corridor Coalition are left to pick up the slack.

The irony of Oakland being unable to help residents plant trees or take care of them isn't lost on Ryugo. "The City of Oakland is a sustainable, green city ... but how can we be green if we do not have a tree-planting crew and we are relying on volunteers to plant trees?" he said. "We need more trees than ever if we are going to be serious about greenhouse gases, shading our homes in summer, and providing habitat and other benefits."

Recognizing his department's current shortcomings, Ryugo said he'd like to see volunteers help plant four hundred to five hundred new trees in Oakland every year — a significant reduction from past averages as high as 1,200, but hopefully enough to replace trees lost to removal, disease, car accidents, and other causes. However, volunteer organizations don't often report newly planted trees, so it's hard to keep track.

Sharing the San Pablo Corridor Coalition's cause, the West Oakland Greening Initiative formed seven years ago to help green many of West Oakland's notoriously vegetation-free, hardscrabble neighborhoods. But when the city lost its ability to purchase or plant new trees — let alone perform related tasks like compiling lists of addresses, performing site inspections, checking underground utilities, and removing concrete — the organization amplified its efforts considerably."We've taken on all those pieces now," said project manager Maria Morales. "It's one of those things that you take for granted until it's gone."

Donations of money, trees, and supplies have helped the newly minted nonprofit pick up where Oakland's Public Works Agency left off. Using a grant from California Releaf, obtained in cooperation with Friends of Oakland Parks and Recreation, the organization has committed to planting five hundred new trees in West Oakland over the next couple years. That's on top of the eight hundred or so it's already put in the ground, including dozens in North Oakland this winter.

The city hasn't been completely absent; it recently granted $40,000 in redevelopment funds to the organization to help it develop a street-tree master plan for the entire West Oakland region. "The overall area has lacked a plan or a vision for how the neighbors want it to look," Morales said. "Instead of the city people doing it, the people are doing it. It's frustrating, but it's empowering."

As the West Oakland Greening Initiative expands its scope, it may cross paths with a newer volunteer tree-planting effort coordinated by the most recognized name in US environmentalism. In direct response to Oakland's tree-services budget cuts, the Northern Alameda County chapter of the Sierra Club established a program that has handled more than one hundred formal tree requests — many left over from an official list once kept by the city — from property owners in North and East Oakland. It was recently awarded $10,000 in redevelopment agency funds to plant an additional 325 trees in a low-income area of East Oakland along the San Leandro border.

Lead coordinator Arthur Boone says he's happy to help, but hopes his group's ambitious tree-planting program is only temporary. "I don't think the Sierra Club has any ambition to replace the city crew," he said. "But I'm sorry the city doesn't have enough money to plant them. ... We're just trying to hold everybody's hand until the city gets its finances in order. We see ourselves as a stopgap. I don't want to do this for the rest of my life, and I don't think anybody else on the team does."

Ryugo would agree. While he appreciates the assistance, relying on volunteer groups to perform an essential civic task like street landscaping is not without its pitfalls. In the current system, the city has to worry about volunteers working with approved vendors, performing adequate inspections, avoiding underground utilities, choosing proper trees, reporting new plantings, and more. Things don't always happen that way. "It's just not working very smoothly," Ryugo acknowledged.

Indeed, volunteer tree-planting programs can cause major problems. Improperly planted trees, for example, may end up growing into power lines, obstructing street signs, damaging concrete, and puncturing sewer pipes. Most of these issues eventually become the city's responsibility, years or even decades down the line, as the new trees are assumed under the already-taxed maintenance crews' purview.

And even if the Tree Services Division isn't doing the planting, it's ultimately liable for pruning trees and managing any hazards that develop, especially among the hundreds of newly installed trees that are unlikely to receive proper early-life pruning. The city's only hope may be that by the time serious problems arise, it'll have more money and staff to deal with them.

North Oakland homeowner Paul Patropulos recently discovered what it's like to be passed over by the city's tree crews for more pressing concerns. Last month, he called public works to report an overgrown, diseased ornamental pear tree growing in the sidewalk in front of his property that's thick with dead limbs. A call center employee asked Patropulos whether it was hazardous; he said yes, noting that he was worried that one of the limbs could fall on a pedestrian. Still, "she pretty much said that it was unlikely that they were gonna do it," Patropulos said. Sure enough, he never heard back. Now he's faced with having to hire a contractor.

Likewise, when the Rockridge Business Improvement District learned that the city had no money to prune the 144 trees lining College Avenue between Broadway and Alcatraz Avenue, many of which were growing against buildings or in front of street signs, member businesses voted to take matters into their own hands. They ended up paying the Valley Crest Tree Company $24,000 to perform the work for them last month. "It's become a fact of life," said District Operations Manager Chris Jackson.

Now, the West Oakland Greening Initiative hopes to get in on the maintenance act. It's currently working with city staff to help train volunteers to prune young trees from the ground, using only hand tools. "We need to pick that up as well," said Morales. "It's being responsible stewards. ... The city still holds trees in a high place. So it's like, 'How can we do this together?'"

Trees may be hallmarks of a sustainable city, but Oakland's current approach toward tree maintenance and planting is fraught with challenges. Volunteers can't climb trees with chainsaws or remove fallen limbs from streets, and organizations often rely on uncertain funding for new trees and supplies. Also, as overtime emergency work and legal liabilities accumulate on the city's side, budget reductions are bound to become less effective than they first appeared.

Some hope that a hybrid of city support and citizen action may provide a long-term fix — a notion that dovetails with recent calls to service by Mayor Quan. Morales agrees that residents may have to reevaluate their expectations. "Who is the city?" she questioned. "Is it the people who work there, or is it the people who live there?"

But until Oakland decides the best path forward, its overgrown tree problems will undoubtedly expand. So too will the costs from trees and limbs creating fire hazards or toppling to the ground, and from work crews who log extra overtime because they're understaffed and overmatched.