Monthly Archives: August 2009

Are you a tree thinker yet?

Somebody mentioned to me awhile ago that to do good by its trees Alameda needs to adopt a “tree-first” policy.

I wholeheartedly agree, but I’ve been also thinking what exactly that means. No doubt, it’s different things to different people.
tree first

To me, it means 1) noticing there are trees around us and 2) acting as if they really matter—like pedestrians matter to drivers for example, or pets matter to their owners. That would mean a status almost on par with ourselves, and an attitude towards trees that matches that status. But I don’t think we are such “tree-thinking” society yet.

In fact, I have a small collection of examples of how much of an afterthought, if that, trees really are to us and how the way we act and think really shows a lack of tree awareness that is detrimental to our surroundings, quality of life, and even budget. I’ve written about such tree afterthoughts here and here, but wanted to share couple more recent ones.

One was a case a couple weeks ago where a permit was issued for sidewalk work by a home owner, and the person cut some roots of the street tree on the sidewalk during work, whether from ignorance or by accident, who knows. The result is that the tree is now considered hazardous and will need to be removed—and replaced at city expense. Was this preventable? Sure, with some forethought. Public Works (they claim now the tree was previously deceased with root rot but that’s another story) could have advised the resident about the tree or made sure to supervise the tree’s well-being while the work is underway. Chances are though, the idea simply did not cross anyone’s mind. Chances are, the person who signed the permit didn’t even know and didn’t wonder whether there is a tree in the way the work s/he approved. It took a phone call to bring this fact to their attention. (They did say they would address similar situations in the future.)

My other example also involves construction, at a school site over the summer, where workers were installing cables next to some newly planted gingko trees, dumping the dug up soil around them, leaning a wooden palette on one of the thin trunks, and generally acting like the trees were some cheap replaceable furniture, not living things in the environment worthy of consideration. A conversation and a visit from the principal cleared that up (that the trees need to be protected during work). Again, I wonder if the trees were ever noted on the plan as existing objects when the workmen got it? Does the district even know how many trees are around each school? I know the volunteers who planted them had to get a permit to plant them, so likely there is a map somewhere… Regardless, looks like nobody told the contractor prior to the work, “Watch those trees, okay?” (Contrast this with construction work around Lake Merrit in Oakland, where trees had orange fencing around them for the longest time and a sign that said “Careful around trees.” But then there was a big tree removal controversy there, so that may have had something to do with it…)

Controversies aside, I think our society needs a serious mental switch when it comes to trees. A mental switch doesn’t cost a penny—and in some cases saves a bundle, for tree replacements for example, when such preventable oopsies happen. But mental switches come about slowly, not unlike growing a tree from a seed.

Here’s what I think a different tree mentality looks like though: I read these two news reports and I found the differences interesting—one is about the fires near Santa Cruz, CA (or any CA fire account for that matter, see L.A. ) and the other one about the fires nearAthens, Greece.

It’s hard to miss a certain difference in focus (people losing their possessions, trees as “fuel on the ground” vs. “ecological disaster”). I know that’s not accidental. When I was in Europe in the summer 2007, when Greece was again engulfed in fires, the disaster was being called as much an environmental one as it was economic and human. What’s more, people (on radio) mourned the burned forests as much as they mourned the loss of life and property. It was refreshing (though sad of course) to hear someone feeling devastated over the loss of an ancient forest instead of several million dollars and a swimming pool for a change.

I hope I’m planting some seeds when I write these things. I know there are people out there who care and see, and other who care but don’t quite know how to see. Where to start? I’d say, looking up more, noting the trees around, learning something about them, is a good first step. If more of us do more of the above, we’ll be happily on our way to becoming tree thinkers, and having policies that are “tree-first” will be no burden at all. Because it’s harder to ignore or hurt a tree you’ve gotten to know personally, right?

Planning Board set to review Master Tree Plan Update

Word is out that the Planning Board will review the new Master Tree Plan on September 28 at its regular meeting.

While this date may change yet again (all parts of the plan are not yet completed to my knowledge), it’s good to put it on the calendar. And submit your comments now. Check the Master Tree Plan documents page above for contact info.

With an eye on the hawks

Over the weekend I was forwarded an email by a couple who has been keeping an eye on Cooper’s hawks around Alameda for the past several years and gathering data on them. The data they’ve collected is important from the standpoint of preserving urban wildlife habitats and should therefore be used to inform the approval and implementation of the new Master Tree Plan, which will shape those habitats in the future. The basic conclusion is that the more tall (50-foot or more), dense trees we manage to cultivate and preserve, the better the hawks population (and other high-nesting creatures) will be. I’m copying the email verbatim, and will post an update when they complete their recommendations to the city with regards to the MTP.

This year, we monitored 4 Cooper’s Hawk nests, which fledged 10 birds. Over the last 4 years (2006-2009), we have monitored 17 nests, which have fledged 48 birds. The number of birds fledged per nest per year: 3.8, 2.5, 3.3, and 2.5.

The number of nests by tree species 2006-2009:

Sweet Gum (Liquidambar) 5
London Plane 4
Red Alder 2
Douglas Fir 2
Blue Gum Eucalyptus 1
Moreton Bay Fig 1
Modesto Ash 1
Southern Magnolia 1

Nests by locale:

Street trees 10
Park trees 6
Back yard trees 1

As you can see from the above lists, the most popular nest trees are Sweet Gum, and London Plane. These trees have been deprecated in the city’s tree plan. Also note, that over half the nest trees are street trees.

The next step is to look at the trees recommended in the city tree plan to see if any of them will provide an adequate nesting alternative. Will do this soon and will keep you posted.

Thanks to everyone for their help this season. A special thanks to Monica for visiting all the nest sites today and doing the tree IDs.


For those unfamiliar with the birds in question, here is some background on Cooper’s hawks, excerpted from a letter written to the City last year by Corinne Lambden, another hawks observer:

Alameda is an established nesting environment of Cooper’s hawks and therefore I recommend that the city consider the nesting requirements and the overall wellbeing of these hawks as an environmental management issue, incorporated into a long-term tree management plan.

A vital reason for doing this is that Cooper’s hawks are a California Species of Special Concern, which is a designation applied when a species shows a sudden and measurable decline in numbers. Because of this designation, the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory, with funding from the California Parks Conservancy and the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, has instituted a Cooper’s Hawks Intensive Nesting Survey (CHINS) to more closely monitor the nesting success of Cooper’s hawks in urban environments.
These hawks prefer to locate their nests on groups of older, mature trees and the nests are typically a inimum of 50′ above the ground. Examples of nesting sites are Gibbons Drive, Washington Park, Chapin Street, Central Avenue and Jackson Park. [….]

Unfortunately, it appears that the types of trees that he hawks favor for nesting, because they provide the necesety height and thickly foliaged canopy, are the same trees that frequently cause problems because of the habit of their roots to raise sidewalks and street surfaces. It is therefore particularly important that the city be aware of the needs of Cooper’s hawks, as well as other worldlife that rely on our urban forests for food and cover, and include these considerations into their actions to mitigate the damage cause by liquidambars and similar trees.

I want to personally thank Corinne, Harv, Monica and all the other volunteers taking time to monitor, advocate for, and enhance the habitat of all the wild creatures we share this pleasant island with. If you want to be involved in this endeavour, drop me a line and I will see that you get in touch.

(Don’t) let the sunshine in and other things

A comment I read a while ago prompted me to start writing this post and I’m just now finding the time to finish it. The comment (which I can’t locate right now) was something along the lines of “Our street trees are dying because we don’t have the money to prune them.” I wanted to address this (the pruning, not the money) because it seems to be such a wide-spread misconception: That trees absolutely need us to do stuff to them (like prune them) or they will drop dead in short order. For starters, this is not corroborated by nature. Trees live their lives and die from a variety of causes but not pruning them is not one of them. Disease, pests, not enough or too much water, yes, but surely not not pruning them. If a tree needed a number of branches removed from it on a regular basis, nature would have come up with a way to do this (and it has: trees drop dead branches on their own, without any help from us, hopefully when we are not around). The reason we prune trees is to help them achieve a shape we consider more aesthetic or whimsical, to stop the spread of disease, or to prevent them from damaging property. However, once this preventive pruning is achieved, the tree can manage perfectly well on its own. (A tree told me that.)

But the fallacy persists, including in people who work in the business of tree pruning (or perhaps precisely because they work in the business of tree pruning). For example, one theory I’ve heard is that a tree needs to be thinned so light can penetrate the inner branches, “to facilitate photosynthesis.” Come on now. If a tree did not receive enough light in the interior, it would not grow branches there, I should think. Trees in multi-layered forests have figured out exactly how much sunlight they need and how to get it—people don’t go there with machetes to let the sunlight in (they go there with machetes for other reasons too gruesome to tell). The only legitimate reasons for thinning the interior of a crown is to let us see through the tree if we need to, to allow someone access to a branch that needs to be cut, or to remove deceased branches. But I’ve heard people advance this theory about letting the light in on more than one occasion, and I find that too funny if the results weren’t too sad too often.

A tree that has a naturally dense crown is healthiest when the crown is allowed to be dense, the way nature intended it. When people begin to artificially alter the shape and density of trees they often introduce problems—the exposed branches become weaker in winds, the tree becomes susceptible to decease because of its reduced vigor, the wildlife flies away…. Soon we start to dislike that tree for the very loss of tree-ness we inflicted on it ourselves, and declare it in decline, and you know how things go from there.

There are certainly psychological factors that play into our relationships with trees, and I’m often surprised how many people are not aware of their own inner motives when they reach for the saw and shears. In a way, I think there are two kinds of people: people who feel fulfilled when they see a tree that is enormous, vigorous and healthy, and people who feel threatened by it. (I know, there are all sorts of nuances here, but I’m sticking to my two guns on this.) I think the attitude is cultural as well but I’ll save this for another post as I have a story or two to tell.

For now, I’ll leave you with someone else’s musings on why people do what they do to trees, from an article I had linked to here. These are the self-styled soapbox moments from the article and I enjoyed them, even though they veer a bit into popular psychology and so invite all kinds of argument, which is good I suppose. Personally, I think that they are based on some good observations and it’s worth thinking about them next time you ask yourself or someone else the question “why exactly do I/you want to prune that tree?”


I thknk that urban trees must be the most misunderstood and physically mutilated living things on the face of this earth. Why do humans butcher trees the way they do? Why do humans feel that they must severely prune and cut back and reduce the size of, subdue and exercise absolute dominance and control over, trees? Why do humans waste so much money and effort on unnecessary pruning?

This is a difficult question to answer and the problem probably stems from deep within our psyche—perhaps even originating from our primordial past before we developed the ability to speak. Back then, the wilderness was a dangerous place and something to conquer. Part of the way that we conquered the wilderness was to cut down trees. Then out enemies couldn’t hide as well behind or within the trees and we would be safer. Cutting down trees and otherwise subduing the environment made us “better” than those other animals that didn’t do that, and perhaps, even smarter. At least it made us the dominant animals, if nothing else. We had the brains and the ability to change out environment more than did any other animal species. And this mindset continues to this day, manifested in pruning without reason. Perhaps this is how humans (now subdued by society itself) act out their primordial instinct to conquer and dominate nature.

Another factor that complicates this problem is that people see tree pruning being done—often poor pruning—and they think what they see id the correct way to prune trees, especially if they see a lot of it being done. They then want the same type of pruning performed on their own unfortunate trees.

Perhaps another reason we overprune trees is because trees have the potential to become larger than us, and humans tend to fear things that are larger than we are. We want to make these large things smaller so that we can dominate and control them and so that there is no possibility that they can ever hurt us or cause us problems.

More than a decade ago a tree advocate names Cass Turnbull started an organization called Plant Amnesty to discourage the bizarre manner in which humans try to subdue trees and other plants by overpruning—for example, pruning trees so they look like hat boxes, removing all branches from trees because “the tree drops too many leaves,” topping trees, etc. The organization still exists today and can be accessed on the wed at