By George Hostetter
Fresno, CA (August 2, 2009)- The city of Fresno will soon rev up the chain saws and clear-cut a part of its urban forest, all in the name of transforming Eaton Plaza into an idyllic green space amid downtown’s asphalt and concrete. That means war, say activists at Tree Fresno.
The City Council recently approved several changes to the plaza’s master plan, including removal of what a staff report calls the “camphor grove” in the northwest corner of the four-acre site. There are nine camphor and seven bottlebrush trees at a corner called “camphor grove” at Eaton Plaza, not far from the historic Fresno Water Tower. City officials say the trees must go. City officials say some of the trees, neglected for decades, are diseased. Roots buckle nearby sidewalks and the canopies block sunlight year-round, leaving the earth barren, officials say.
None of that illness and devastation fits into the master plan, and the trees must go if Eaton Plaza is to thrive, officials say. It’s too bad the trees can’t be saved, says Kelly Riddle, the city’s economic development coordinator and author of the staff report recommending their removal. “But they are what they are. We are adding a lot more trees than are out there now.”
Initially the city plans to tear out parking lots and plant grass. More than 200 trees are to be added to Eaton Plaza by the time it’s fully built out. That could be as soon as the end of 2012, although no date is set for work to begin.
But Jane Fortune, executive director of the urban environmental group Tree Fresno, says she doesn’t buy the idea that the only way to save green space is to first destroy it. “We are very much opposed to [the grove’s] removal,” she says.
Value of older trees
Tree Fresno is perhaps Fresno’s best-known advocate for urban green space, and Fortune says she is perturbed that City Hall didn’t notify her about the May 21 meeting where the council apparently all but sealed the grove’s fate. Council members voted 7-0, and no one from the dais or the public expressed any grief over the doomed trees.
Fortune says she and Tree Fresno projects director Ron Nishinaka have studied the grove. The problem with roots, she says, can be easily solved: “Move the sidewalk a little bit.” Fortune says the grove appears healthy. More importantly, she says, the age of some trees is 40 years or more, and that’s a key but apparently overlooked part of the debate.
Tree experts have come up with a formula to gauge the economic value of a mature tree, based, among other things, on its contribution to cleansing and cooling the air. Younger trees have a negative cost-benefit analysis- they cost more to water and maintain than the return in dollars and cents. In purely economic terms, urban forest managers say, trees are money-losers for their first 20 years of life.
But Eaton Plaza’s camphor grove, Fortune says, is in the prime of its economic value. “Tree Fresno is very much concerned with the loss of those trees,” she says.
Canopy loss is costly
Some cities have more stringent laws protecting trees. In Sacramento, for example, citizens may not remove trees of historic, environmental, economic, or aesthetic value in that city without a permit. Decisions are subject to hearings and appeals.
Joe Benassini, Sacramento’s urban forestry manager, says Sacramento City Hall plays by the same rules on its projects. He says it’s never an easy call when the fate of beloved community trees are at stake. He says the issue isn’t merely the trees, but preserving the space dedicated to them. In other words, it’s one thing to remove an ailing tree and replace it with another, and something else to cover the site with asphalt.
Benassini also cautions against what he calls the “cumulative loss of canopy.” Replacing an old tree with a young tree is a one-for-one exchange in quantity. But the former’s majestic, cooling, breathtaking canopy probably required 30 or 40 years of nurture and nature. Do too many of those old-tree-for-young-tree trade-offs, Benassini says, and a community suffers.
Hal Tokmakian, a member of the Downtown Fresno Coalition, a group of community leaders focused on downtown planning issues, said he supports the city’s decision to remove the trees. He had doubts at first. But, he adds, “for the long run, they have to come out.” Jan Minami, executive director of the Downtown Association of Fresno, says her group will withhold judgment for now: “We’re still getting better informed.”
Tom Kramer needed only seconds to make his decision. Kramer, his wife, Marlene, and their two sons were traveling from their home in Modesto to Southern California on Friday morning. They pulled into downtown, thinking they could easily find doughnuts, a cool drink, and something interesting to do before heading on. There they were, eating out of the back of their SUV in the Eaton Plaza parking lot on O Street. The Water Tower was closed.
Told that the camphor grove was destined for removal, Kramer took a quick look at it, then shook his head. “Nope. They shouldn’t do it. They should work around those trees.” The parking lot was hot and dusty. All the family had wanted, Kramer said, was a pleasant and inviting park. “Do you have that kind in Fresno?”
Fresno Bee- Tree Fresno is seeing red over camphor grove removal