One Year In, Street Tree Program Deemed on Track

The Bureau of Urban Forestry promises to get to all 125,000 street trees with a strict four-year plan to end a maintenance backlog.

A Public Works employee trims a street tree at 23rd and Castro streets. (Sarahbeth Maney/2017 Special to S.F. Examiner)

With a voter-approved $19 million annual budget for tree maintenance, San Francisco has a strict plan to end the backlog but needs another $12 million each year to plant more trees.

In 2016, an overwhelming amount of San Francisco voters agreed that tree maintenance should be in the hands of the city, not property owners who may be unable or unwilling to provide proper care. The good news is that with just over a year into StreetTreeSF, a program to maintain the city’s long-neglected street trees, 19 percent of total needs have been met.

That equates to the pruning of 18,300 trees and the removal of 2,615 unhealthy or structurally unsound trees that no longer have the potential to critically hurt someone — the cautionary tale being Cui Ying Zhou, who has been paralyzed since a 100-pound tree branch struck her in Washington Square Park in 2016. San Francisco Public Works Bureau of Urban Forestry is on track to meet the needs of all 125,000 street trees in another three years, according to Superintendent Carla Short.  

“Many of these trees are suffering from years of deferred maintenance,” Supervisor Rafael Mandelman said at the Public Safety and Neighborhood Services committee meeting on Wednesday. “Growing pains are to be expected with a transition of this magnitude.”

Another key component is patience, at least during this first phase. StreetTreeSF has a rigid “worst first” schedule to prune or remove the most critical trees, though they’ll often prune trees on the same block to prevent too much doubling back.

If there is a tree-related emergency, Short advises call 311 — otherwise hang on tight and look for notices so things stay on schedule. Just a couple public commenters appeared before the committee on Wednesday but both requested better public outreach, as many are in the dark about the city’s plans and notices may fall off before most have a chance to see them.

Short warns the public that some pruning can look dramatic as they cut limbs hanging over roads to prevent them from being struck by a car. More than 4,600 tree-related tripping hazards have also been removed through concrete slicing, which evens out the sidewalk and preserves the tree roots.

The Bureau of Urban Forestry hopes to soon have 28 arborist technicians, six supervisors, 12 apprentices, and 17 laborers or truck drivers in-house. But hiring trained and qualified to maintain a standard of care has been more difficult than anticipated so more than 55 contracts have been doled out since the program began. Short reports staff has identified only a couple mistakes with the work of the contractors. 

But by catching up to trees that should have been removed earlier, the city’s urban forest risks dwindling if it doesn’t plant enough trees, which 2016’s Proposition E did not include funding for. Short anticipates needing another $12 million a year to replace removed trees and to reach the city’s goal of adding 50,000 trees over the next 20 years that require more attention in their infancy.

“My hope is to start a little competition among supervisors,” Short said with a smile while encouraging a push for funding.”We are removing far more trees than we have historically removed.”

Still, the city prides itself on providing a shining model to maintain trees for cities reaching out for advice from San Jose to Mantova, Italy. The Arbor Day Foundation even gave the city a “Champion of Trees” award earlier this year.

“This really is a game changer for urban forestry in San Francisco,” Short said. “We want to be the city people talk about when they talk about a good [tree maintenance] program.”

To find out your neighborhood’s tree pruning schedule, check the map at sfpublicworks.org/streettreesf.

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