Tree Wars

By Joel P. Engardio

In San Francisco, there seems to be a correlation between well-intended bans, unintended consequences and jokes on Jon Stewart's "Daily Show" (we banned toys in Happy Meals, but kids are still getting fat).

Now there are plans to cut down large numbers of trees and replace them with native grass because ancient San Francisco was naturally treeless.

Can we agree that attempting to turn back the botanical clock is a nerve-racking feat in a city that's still trying to get the buses to run on time?

The issue is ripe for parody because the call for tree destruction is coming from environmental activists who favor native plants. Meanwhile, many longtime residents and retired homeowners concerned with loss of windbreak and property value play the role of unlikely tree-huggers.

The resulting Tree Wars are being fought on Mount Davidson and Mount Sutro, where Adolph Sutro planted a dense forest of Australian eucalyptus trees in the 1880s when San Francisco was mostly sand dunes. Today, Sutro is both cursed and praised for his choice of tree.

Some view those peaks as lush and gorgeous "cloud forests" where fog gathers and hangs in the eucalyptus.

Others see ugly and invasive "trees-as-weeds" that choke the land of natural life. When an arborist declares the forest is dying, another comes forward to say it will thrive for decades. When people claim that eucalyptus trees can't support wildlife, photographers post pictures of baby owls nesting. And on it goes.

I believe if there's an eucalyptus (or any tree) in danger of burning or falling, cut it down. If a tree stands in the way of a needed development, cut it down. Common sense says life and property comes before trees.

But I question if we should spend scarce tax dollars to replace healthy trees with native plants when the city had to borrow $200 million last year to fix dilapidated playgrounds.

Parks in a crowded city should put the recreation needs of people and pets first. That's why native plant programs - which restrict access for the sake of the plants - seem better suited for places like Yosemite than urban areas.

And how can the city justify funding native-plant programs when it says it can't afford to maintain street trees? Homeowners resent they're now required to pay for pruning city trees in front of their property.

What's missing in the eucalyptus debate is the fact that there aren't many trees of any kind in San Francisco. Our overall tree canopy is just 12 percent, compared to 36 percent in Atlanta and 29 percent in Boston. New York's concrete jungle has double the trees we have. Even the parking lot known as Los Angeles beats us in tree cover (18 percent).

How can San Francisco - a self-proclaimed "green" city - have so few trees? The city needs to focus less on native plants and more on putting resources into planting more trees along streets and in parks that can clean the air, absorb traffic noise and help prevent landslides.

When the "Daily Show" spoofs our tree wars, it's hard to say which side will get the most laughs. Both sides have extremists to skewer. Hopefully there's a middle majority who believes that more trees of all varieties are good for San Francisco - a majority who's tired of our city giving Jon Stewart easy material.

Also published in San Francisco Chronicle March 1, 2013