Oakland Overgrown 

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

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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, volunteer and nonprofit organizations like the San Pablo Corridor Coalition and Urban Releaf, which has been planting trees in Oakland since 1999, 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 Green 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 Green 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.

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