Off Deadline: Personalizing the 'urban forest' | News | Palo Alto Online |


Off Deadline: Personalizing the 'urban forest'


The current dialogue over northern Palo Alto's historic "urban forest" may mean that residents need to take more personal initiative to assure it's a full-habitat forest, not just a collection of trees.

The emergence of an "Urban Forest Master Plan" will add an official stamp on the long-used term. The plan, first proposed nine years ago, finally began to take shape under the guidance of the city's first "urban forester," Walter Passmore, who was selected after an exhaustive search that included two interview panels of non-city professional and state arborists.

Passmore grew up in San Francisco, is a certified arborist, and has a bachelor's degree in forestry/natural resource management from California Polytechnic State University. At the time of his hire in mid-2012 he was completing a master's degree in public administration at Texas State University.

The 206-page draft master plan, with extensive data on Palo Alto's existing trees and the overall forest, is available online here. It is an interesting, well-designed and jam-packed plan, well worth the reading.

The term urban forest means both the city's street trees -- estimated at well over 100,000 -- and trees on private properties, both residential and commercial. As outlined in an earlier column, the plan was initially suggested by Canopy, the nonprofit created by the city to count, monitor and educate about trees and their well-being.

The council adopted the plan last month, subject to possible revisions due to a late-breaking opposition from three significant environmental groups: the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society, the Loma Prieta Chapter of the Sierra Club and the California Native Plant Society. Canopy and the Palo Alto-based Acterra supported adoption of the plan. Discussions have been underway to resolve any differences for a final version.

Over the years as a journalist covering Palo Alto, I was well-acquainted with many of those who had a hand in creating today's forested streets, among them George Hood. He was the near-legendary city tree arborist who is best known for saving the life of El Palo Alto, the city's "living landmark," nearly 80 years ago after he was named the city's park-maintenance foreman in 1938. He served for just under 40 years and was credited with growing more than 50,000 trees in the city's former nursery, behind Eleanor Pardee Park.

That nursery replaced an earlier nursery near where El Palo Alto still stands, at the Caltrain bridge over San Francisquito Creek.

The venerable tree, once a double-trunk landmark for Spanish explorers in the 1600s, still has the pipe Hood had installed up its side so it could be misted, like coastal redwood trees, in what he termed a "fool the redwood" maneuver. He also nursed its shallow roots and reversed its potentially terminal decline.

As a reporter for the Palo Alto Times, one of my assignments well into the 1970s was to cover the annual "physical exam" for El Palo Alto. The city would back its then-new tall snorkel fire truck back to the tree and lift a climber from Davey Tree Company up into its branches.

One year there was great concern when the climber found an invasion of airborne termites in its upper branches and wood, requiring surgical removal and trimming the tree's height back some feet. Hood took the branches, cut them into diagonal sections, and gave them out as light paperweights, with termite holes visible. Somewhere I still have one of his early slices.

Hood also propagated what he called "El Nino Palo Alto" trees from seeds, often requiring a thousand or more seeds to produce a handful of seedlings. One El Nino was planted at Mitchell Park in south Palo Alto, and others were given out as awards or sent to cities internationally that wanted redwoods of their own.

He also grew redwoods from seeds that had orbited the earth 126 times, in a challenge by astronaut Loren Acton of Palo Alto -- trees later planted at Piers Park -- and is also credited with saving many non-redwood street trees, which were showing signs of distress over the years.

But those who love fall colors in their urban forest can thank Hood, who created his own variety of sweet-gum liquidambar to replace an ailing tree in the 1300 block of Pitman Avenue. The trademarked "Palo Alto liquidambar" has been adopted in cities internationally.

Hood also specialized in growing trees that thrive in the alkaline-clay soil of Palo Alto, with seedlings from Asia, South America and India -- perhaps the roots of today's concern about non-native species that don't support native habitat.

An excellent summary of Hood's contributions, by local writer JudyAnn Edwards, was published in the Nov. 15, 2006, Weekly.

Hood followed the path of others in expanding the urban forest. In the 1920s, Charles Miller created the city's first tree nursery using wood salvaged from the former Palo Alto Hospital, near the site of El Palo Alto.

Members of the Palo Alto Women's Club distributed his seedlings of the trees from the nursery, vastly expanding the canopy coverage of what grew into the urban forest from its earlier beginnings of about 120 years ago.

The future of the forest is now being framed. Its expansion farther into south Palo Alto to correct a long-noted tree imbalance is being planned, while making the forest into a stronger habitat for birds, animals and insects is being actively discussed.

Here's a suggestion: If even a portion of the homeowners planted a tree or critter-friendly shrubs (information available from the California Native Plant Society, Canopy, the Audubon Society and other sources, including the city), it would mean that hundreds, even thousands of new habitat sources would be added to the existing supply. It would round out the forest into a full-range urban forest.

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

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29 people like this
Posted by But, But....
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 9, 2015 at 1:00 pm

Yet the city forbids residents to perform any sort of maintenance on the "city owned" trees, i.e., the ones on our parkways--except, just recently, watering. That is only because they are showing signs of stress now.

If they are "city trees", the city should use its big wayer trucks, fill them with recycled water, and water them!

11 people like this
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 9, 2015 at 3:31 pm

Thanks for the background and info, Jay.

If Palo Alto wants new native trees planted on private property (e.g. live oaks), then they need to be unprotected from city regulations. Rational property owners will not plant them, because then they are entrapped by them. It may sound counter-intuitive, but it is not.

Exogenous trees should be slowly eliminated (especially liquidambars and magnolia trees!) A native oak forest, perhaps some bay laurels, buckeyes, etc. in PA would be nice, IMO.

All official (paid) arborists should be eliminated from the PA payroll...they cost a lot of money and they do more harm than good.

9 people like this
Posted by 49er
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 10, 2015 at 10:14 am

Truth be told, the present day "forest" reflects expectations of people who came here from elsewhere, for example the eastern US, and water engineering; not nature. We might do well with fewer trees.

Early photos, maps, drawings, etc. of the PA area show the the present-day "forest" is not natural. Trees were fairly few and far between. I recall reading an old document that stated that a single tree, the El Palo Alto, was clearly visible as a landmark from hills in present day Belmont. Try that today, even from the Stanford Hills.

6 people like this
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 11, 2015 at 1:08 pm

@49er: Cities with water engineering and planted trees are always artificial. Without the trees they are still artificial...I don't think that is a valid argument (unless you want to eliminate all cities and towns). However, an urban forest consisting of native trees would save water, as well as reflect the actual native environment. Go up to Foothills Park to get a feel for what our native trees are.

Eliminate the so-called 'protection' for native trees, and we will see many more of them on private property. To 'protect' them is to eliminate them.

5 people like this
Posted by Sharon
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 11, 2015 at 1:55 pm

"To 'protect' them is to eliminate them"

@Craig, I usually don't agree with you, but on this you are right. If we want more live oaks planted in Palo Alto, they should not be a protected species. Private property owners, like myself, simply will not plant them until they are de-protected.

I also agree with you about your larger point, namely that our urban forest should consist of native trees.

1 person likes this
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 11, 2015 at 8:31 pm

@Sharon: I mentioned this paradox to Pat Burt when he was canvassing my neighborhood...several years ago. He seemed to agree, especially for private property. Yet, he has done nothing. I know he is a smart guy, but he seems to conveniently lose his logic, if it means more potential votes. Big disappointment to me. Does he, and his supporters prefer extinguishing the live oaks in Palo Alto?

2 people like this
Posted by Jane
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 12, 2015 at 12:59 pm

I wonder about the number of trees removed from yards in my area. Most appear to be for the land owners convenience. When one walks a dog around various streets for years, you get to know some of the trees appearances and feel sad when one is removed for what appears to be reasons other than disease.

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