Nearly two years ago, Santa Cruz City Councilmember Chris Krohn and I met at UCSC to talk about a planned housing expansion onto the Porter Meadow.
Krohn suggested that, before we go anywhere, we walk through Rachel Carson College to an adjacent site once home to more than 50 redwoods, which had just been cut down to make way for what’s now a chemical waste facility. “We can’t keep cutting trees down like this,” Krohn said, surveying the fresh wood chips scattered on the ground. “Especially cutting them down without telling anyone. I mean, look at all of these stumps.”
I wasn’t quite sure why we were there at the time, but looking back on that meeting, I can see that Krohn—who’d recently been elected to his first council term in more than 15 years—holds a core belief that Santa Cruz should protect as many old, big trees as possible.
“Trees make everything more pleasant. They soften the environment,” Krohn told me when we met again a couple of weeks ago for a walk down Center Street, towards a few fresh cement plots once home to trees. “I think a lot of community-minded things can happen when you have a healthy urban tree count.”
Krohn notes that the city of Santa Monica has an urban tree count, and says it has a “pretty amazing” system to track the status of its canopy. He recently put in a request to learn how many heritage trees have been cut down in the last three years in Santa Cruz. “I’m not sure when I’m going to get that,” he says
Krohn has a particular affinity for live oaks. He has four growing in his yard alongside some fruit trees he planted. “Adding to the urban canopy is one of the top things we can do for climate change mitigation. It’s easy, low-hanging fruit—not to mix metaphors,” he says. “But I’d love to know if we are adding to the urban canopy or not.”
In 2016, Maria Grusauskas wrote a cover story for GT about local heritage trees and the urban canopy. Grusauskas noted that Santa Cruz doesn’t keep a system for categorizing trees, or even know how many trees are growing on its land. But that may soon change, now that Santa Cruz has landed a grant with CalFire that will fund a tree inventory on city property.
“We are working on creating an inventory of all of the trees within city property, within the city limits, and doing an assessment of their health, condition, species and size and diameter,” says Leslie Keedy, an urban forester with the city of Santa Cruz. “That includes street and park trees, and city-owned buildings and the golf course. We estimated that we have about 50,000 trees citywide, but won’t be sure until the inventory is complete.”
That same CalFire grant will also reimburse the city for planting 500 new canopy trees—including horse chestnuts, maples, oaks, and redwoods—that will help trap carbon emissions and provide storm water benefits. The majority of the new trees have already been planted in parks or near roadways and other public areas with the help of volunteers. Keedy says there are around 150 left to plant by winter. On top of the grant, the city will also plant 100 non-canopy trees in confined areas like sidewalks, narrow street medians and parks. In a typical year, Keedy says the city plants upwards of 250 canopy and medium-sized trees.
The city’s lack of a tree count annoyed Krohn, as did a 2013 rule change making it easier to cut down heritage trees if they posed problems for property owners. A 2015 appellate court ruling threw out that change, on the grounds that it violated the California Environmental Quality Act.
“Part of the story with cutting trees is the fear factor,” Krohn says. “People want to cut down heritage trees because they are worried about trees falling on them. But that’s why the heritage tree fund is so important, because trees don’t fall very often, and there are other solutions.”
The Santa Cruz Parks and Recreation Department recently proposed that City Council consider a $25,000 increase to the Heritage Grant grant program, doubling the fund to $50,000 as part of the 2020 budget proposal. Parks and Recreation Director Tony Elliot says that because the agency was faced with budget restrictions for the next fiscal year, they are unable to increase the heritage tree budget themselves. The heritage tree budget increase was not approved by the council, and will remain at $25,000.
From 2017 to June 2019, the city has approved removal of an average of 300 trees per year—including dead trees, hazards, street trees, and heritage trees. About 90% of applications are granted, Keedy says, and any heritage tree appeals, which cost $100, are heard first by the Parks and Recreation Commission and then go onto the City Council if a resident decides to appeal. Keedy must find a tree unhealthy or hazardous if it is set to be removed, though the council or commission can uphold or reverse her decision.
Since the 250 trees usually planted each year aren’t guaranteed to outnumber those cut down, the CalFire grant this year will provide a “bonus planting,” likely putting the city in the green. The exact number of trees to be removed won’t be known until Keedy’s office generates a final report.
But there’s more work to be done, Krohn says. “I used to read the Dr. Suess story The Lorax over and over with my kids,” he says. “Trees have been big issues in Santa Cruz over the years, but lately I am feeling like we are losing the trees and the tree stories.”