Off Deadline: Watching Urban Forest Master Plan develop was like ... watching trees grow | News | Palo Alto Online |


Off Deadline: Watching Urban Forest Master Plan develop was like ... watching trees grow


The recent adoption of an Urban Forest Master Plan by the Palo Alto City Council comes just shy of a decade since the idea was first proposed by Canopy, the city's nonprofit tree-advocate group.

There still may be a bit of pruning and grafting to be done on the 206-page document, laden with both tree philosophy and enough facts to clog a storm drain or two.

Some have objected to the plan as not emphasizing that the forest -- or any forest -- needs to be a habitat for birds, animals and even insects. The absence of such a reference last spring created a bit of a split between environmental groups, with the Palo Alto-based Acterra and Canopy supporting council adoption of the plan while the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society, the Loma Prieta Chapter of the Sierra Club and the California Native Plant Society opposed it.

At issue was whether the large number of non-native trees were making life harder for native critters that evolved for thousands of years with the native vegetation. One speaker, Claire Elliott of Acterra, held up a branch of leaves that had been chewed on and a second branch with pristine leaves, indicating some species was going hungry due to a non-native plant.

There have been some conciliatory talks lately as the city moves toward a final version of the master plan.

Palo Alto's urban forest dates back about 120 years, and in the early 1900s trees became the subject of a community battle. It seems horses could navigate around trees on the unpaved streets more easily than cars, particularly when en route home from a night out visiting Mayfield watering holes. Some in town wanted the trees removed. A compromise was to paint the trunks of larger trees white -- trees long since gone.

The term "urban forest" applies both the city-owned street trees along curbs and to private trees in the yards of residents and on properties of businesses. The term seems more appropriate for northern Palo Alto more than south-of-Oregon Expressway neighborhoods.

To get the true sense of what "urban forest" means, one simply needs to take a hike at the Dish above Stanford University or drive up to the Windy Hill parking area along Skyline Boulevard and look east. Except for some tall buildings in commercial areas, much of Palo Alto disappears into greenery.

South Palo Alto is an exception to the visibility test, as a newer (1950s-1960s) area of development. Southerners have long complained that city facilities favor the north half of town, and trees are a valid case in point -- the new Mitchell Park Community Center notwithstanding.

Yet plans are afoot to encourage more tree planting in the south. To speed things along, anyone can call the city and request a street tree or trees for in front of their house. Homeowners and renters (with landlord permission, presumably) could also plant trees, following a bit of research relating to how aggressive the roots might be in terms of patios or driveways.

The quantity and timing of leaf fall might also be of some interest to the resident planning for a new addition to the urban forest.

Roots also are a concern for street trees in particular, reaching clear to the city attorney's office. One of the largest injury claims against the city each year is from people tripping on raised sidewalks, despite public-works crews racing with expensive repairs against the slow-but-powerful underground force.

Yet surveys show 3-to-1 support for the urban canopy for a number of reasons, from shade and beauty to habitat (for people and critters) to property values -- as if those weren't already high enough, some might say.

There is equally strong support for habitat-supporting trees.

Yet one might doubt that too many residents with established landscaping would be thrilled with well-chewed leaves, or even with dead trees around (caused by the current drought or not).

Catherine Martineau, longtime director of Canopy, who first proposed the Urban Forest Master Plan to city officials in 2006, is optimistic that the current plan, approved on May 11 by the City Council with some conditions for further work, will be finalized. The current plan is based largely on a U.S. Forest Service analysis tool, called iTree -- which focuses heavily on the benefits of trees, but more for people than for critters.

"For a long time, unless there is a dollar value in front of an asset there is no real incentive" to focus on things such as the well-being of trees, Martineau observed, adding that iTree provides such an incentive. "Palo Alto is a little bit different because everyone knows trees are appreciated and valued anyway.

"One thing the research does not assess is the value in terms of habitat." It lists ecosystem benefits but is "skewed for trees that are not necessarily the best for habitat."

Shani Kleinhaus, Ph.D., environmental advocate for the Audubon Society chapter, notes that the groups are meeting with the city's relatively new urban forester, Walter Passmore, who has been a sparkplug in getting the master plan moving at last.

Facing a nationwide decline in songbirds, considering habitat value of any forest is vitally important: "From this perspective, the Palo Alto Urban Forest has not only an aesthetic value and a role in our sustainable future but also a role in the regional ecosystem, and in sustaining migratory songbird populations," she notes.

A staff report, which will be available at, on the north-south tree disparity will be discussed by the council on Oct. 5. Closing the disparity will take awhile, even with a unified and sustained effort.

Kind of like watching trees grow.

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at He also writes periodic blogs at

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4 people like this
Posted by David
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 26, 2015 at 11:09 am

The foothills are going through a change in tree canopy which started 10-years ago. Sudden Oak Death has push into the foothills from Santa Cruz County and is killing hundreds if not thousands of mature oaks between Skyline Blvd and Foothill Expressway. The drought has killed off hundreds Monterey pines and redwood trees up and down the peninsula. These dead and dying trees will become fuel for a wildfire. Will the UFMP address this sweeping change in both our urban and rural landscape? Roughly half of Palo Alto is nearly undeveloped in our foothills.

4 people like this
Posted by Wondering
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Sep 26, 2015 at 12:43 pm

Pine trees in some areas are dropping heavy green pine cones that have not yet turned brown, falling unexpectedly and weighing well over a pound each. I wonder if it is the drought that causes this, as it's something I have never noticed before now.

Up until this year, pine cones on the ground have been brown, and light in weight. I hope these trees are alright, and just this year's crop of pine cones are at risk. The trees look alive, from what I've observed. Would anyone know what's happening?

8 people like this
Posted by Tree lover
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 26, 2015 at 9:26 pm

The City and Canopy should be encouraging all residents to make sure they continue to water their trees! Many people have let their lawns die and the lack of water is stressing all the trees. Look around Palo Alto and you will see so many stressed trees! My historic coastal live oak suddenly died this Spring. It was a huge loss to our property.

2 people like this
Posted by rainbow38
a resident of Mountain View
on Sep 28, 2015 at 11:16 am

The proposed BRT will adversely affect trees along El Camino Real. One of many reasons this plan should be rejected if at all possible.

2 people like this
Posted by Jane
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 28, 2015 at 4:12 pm

When visiting friends in parts of south Palo Alto I've noticed that there are not any sidewalk medians for street trees so it is up to the owners of those houses to plant trees in their own front yards.

As water costs continue to rise unfortunately for many people it is a disincentive to water their street trees. Particularly if you don't own the house. Another problem are the sad looking street trees in front of many apartment buildings where the landlord is absent, possibly not even living in Palo Alto. And if new ones are planted there is no one to water them.

Have never quite figured out why, after the last drought in the 1070's when we had to cut back on water use, all newly planted street trees haven't been drought tolerant, Case in point. A previous city arborist went to France and was inspired by the pretty chestnut trees. So what does he do? Come back and plant chestnut trees in the mediums regardless of whether there is an owner or renter willing to water them. They need a good watering once a month or simply don't thrive. Down the street we have two of the saddest looking chestnut trees planted about ten years ago. To begin with I carried buckets of water down the street, but eventually gave up.

Like this comment
Posted by Jane
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 28, 2015 at 4:14 pm

"...after the last drought in the 1070's." Ooops I'm not that old. 1970's drought.

2 people like this
Posted by Catherine Martineau
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Sep 28, 2015 at 5:26 pm

Yes, trees are suffering from the prolonged drought compounded by water conservation. The City and Canopy are actively encouraging residents to water trees.

For smart watering tips, go to the Canopy website: Web Link. More information is available on the City's website: Web Link.

Meteorologists predict that we will not get any substantial rain until November or December and that the bulk of El Nino storms will happen in January-March. It makes sense to invest some water to preserve the trees and the myriad benefits they provide.

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