San Jose must affirm support for urban tree program

Mercury News Editorial
San Jose, CA (August 13, 2007)- The San Jose council should approve the Our City Forest plan. The illegal destruction of a stand of sycamores in Willow Glen in January seemed like a turning point for San Jose’s urban forest. The incident enraged community leaders across the city because it symbolized the weakness of local laws to protect trees. As a consequence, the city council told the staff to work on strengthening citywide tree policies. Activists who’d been frustrated by an earlier, superficial revision of these ordinances were hopeful for serious change.

It may yet come – but only if the mayor and council step in again. Momentum is being squandered on two fronts:
* The review of tree policies is centered inside City Hall, with little public participation.
* The city’s community-based provider of urban forestry services for 14 years, Our City Forest, has met resistance from city staff as it has tried to expand through an Americorps grant. And there are indications that staff would like to diminish Our City Forest’s contractor role and take more of the work inside City Hall.
If San Jose is serious about going green, as Mayor Chuck Reed has promised, then trees have to be a top priority. Trees cool the air and the pavement, saving energy. They absorb tons of pollutants each year and breathe in carbon dioxide while giving off oxygen.
But planting and protecting trees can’t be just government work. Public outreach, engagement and education are critical – and engaging volunteers is not something the city does well.
The council-ordered review of tree policies got off to a rocky start. Activists were frustrated because it was assigned to a project manager with no expertise on the subject. And earlier this summer, people were told that two little-publicized meetings would be their only opportunity for comment.
The city manager’s office now says there’ll be lots more public outreach. But what’s needed is engagement. Residents just months ago were brimming with energy and ideas. They’d eagerly join a task force or advisory group – but it will take a push from the mayor and council to start one.
Elected officials also need to reiterate their support for Our City Forest.
The nonprofit for 14 years has gotten office space and from $120,000 to $150,000 a year in seed money from the city, which it has leveraged to bring in $4 million in outside grants – $5 million including this year’s recent awards – to plant, maintain and provide expertise on trees. It’s a bargain for excellent work, but dollars don’t tell the main story. The genius of Our City Forest is the way it enlists and educates the public.
Through training, tree plantings and other projects, Our City Forest has engaged more than 120,000 residents at hundreds of neighborhoods and schools, working with volunteers to plant more than 40,000 trees – each of which is adopted by a “steward,” who waters and cares for it. These trees have an impressive 90 percent survival rate.
Some city services are best provided by city employees. But for urban forestry, there’s no substitute for volunteer-based programs that build awareness and advocacy at the same time they expand the tree canopy.
That’s true even in rich cities. But it’s especially true in budget-challenged San Jose. The mayor and council need to make that clear.
Related Resources:
San Jose Mercury News
Our City Forest