According to a running tally on the city's website, San Francisco has lost more than a thousand trees and tree limbs in the last couple of months, thanks to a battering parade of wet and windy storms. Reaching the city's tree-planting goal just got a whole lot harder.
Even before this record-breaking Winter of 2022/23, which has now officially bled into the Spring of 2023, San Francisco was notably behind on achieving a stated goal of planting over 30,000 new trees across the city by 2040. And while tree mortality is an issue every year, the reported 700 trees that fell in just the last two months — according to a release last week from the Mayor's Office — plus whatever additional treefalls and other failures come in the days and weeks ahead thanks to oversaturated ground, makes for a whole lot of catch-up work to be done.
StreetTreeSF is the program under the auspices of Public Works that came about after voters approved Prop. E in 2016. (Some may recall the brief period of chaos when Mohammed Nuru's Public Works Department suddenly tried to foist all street tree maintenance onto SF property owners.) The city conducted an audit in 2017 and found there were 40,000 vacant planting sites for street trees at that time. And with a goal of having 155,000 total trees by 2040, an estimated tree population of 125,000, and an average mortality rate of 2% per year, DPW said in 2020 that would mean a tree-planting schedule of 4,000 trees per year — 1,500 new, and 2,500 replacements.
Now, the city gets some help with this from Friends of the Urban Forest (FUF), a 42-year-old nonprofit that has reportedly planted 60,000 trees in the city — or almost half of all the trees currently out there. The organization plants trees and maintains them for three years, then handing over care to DPW — and their priorities are underserved areas and those with few street trees, including the Avenues, Bayview-Hunters Point, SoMa, and the Tenderloin/Civic Center area.
But as the SF Standard reports this week, one issue that will continue to dog the city, according to longtime FUF volunteer Joshua Klipp, is just how many city departments and jurisdictions have to oversee tree planting and maintenance.
"San Francisco is pretty dysfunctional regarding its tree management, because it's just so fragmented," Klipp tells the Standard, noting that tree management falls to Rec & Park, the SFMTA, DPW, Caltrans, and a dozen and a half other agencies.
According to the San Francisco Urban Forestry Council’s 2022 Annual Urban Forest Report, the city has not even come close to reaching its planting goals in the last five years, and the street tree population — even before this nasty winter! — is lower than it was in 2017. I.e., the city and volunteers haven't even kept up with replacing dead or toppled trees, let alone planted any net new ones.
Couple that with the age of many of San Francisco's park trees, and we have a serious problem ahead. The majestic Monterey cypress trees that dot Golden Gate Park, the Panhandle, and Alamo Square Park, for instance, have an average failure point at 66 years of age, including root, trunk, and branch failures. We've seen plenty of branch failures on these trees this winter and in the last decade, but some of these trees were planted not 60 but 160 years ago.
StreetTreeSF — or DPW — will have its work cut out for it in the coming years, and in the meantime, our streets may look a whole lot less shady or green. If the estimates are right and we're down to 122,000 or 123,000 city trees this year, reaching that earlier stated goal is going to mean planting something like 4,700 trees per year, between new and replacement trees.