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Growing San Diego's Urban Forest

A small group of San Diegans are working to improve our local urban forest.
Allan Ferguson
A small group of San Diegans are working to improve our local urban forest.
Growing San Diego's Urban Forest
San Diego is short nearly 290,000 trees according to U.S. Forest Service recommendations. We speak to a man who's working to improve our urban forest about the benefits of having an abundant tree population. Plus, we'll discuss the main challenges to planting more trees in San Diego.

San Diego is short nearly 290,000 trees according to U.S. Forest Service recommendations. We speak to a man who's working to improve our urban forest about the benefits of having an abundant tree population. Plus, we'll discuss the main challenges to planting more trees in San Diego.



Fausto Palafox, owner of Mission Hills Nursery and a member of the San Diego Community Forest Advisory Board

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ST. JOHN: There's nothing like resting under a shady tree a hot day, letting the cool breeze soothe you, see the shade fall around you, and watching the branches sway gently. Even if you're in a city street, a tree can completely change your experience. Escaping has a lot of trees, but apparently it's almost three helped thousand trees short of what the U.S. Forest Service recommends for cities. Are you a tree lover? Do you care if trees are cut down and not replaced? 1-888-895-5727 is the number to call us. Our guest is Fausto Palafox. Is that how you pronounce your name? Good. Owner of mission hills nursery, and a member of the forest advisory board. What inspired you to lobby are for -- trees in the first place?

PALAFOX: I got involved with the 60s board from a friend what thought i would be a good fit. But what cinched for me, that year i took i trip to South Africa, and ended up in the city of Johannesberg, and it has the largest man-made urban forest in the world. I don't know if you recall what the -- that area is no trees, that's the natural state of it, and they've created an oasis there. So with that number in mind, i came back to San Diego and started doing research as to where we stood as far as --


CAVANAUGH: How many trees do we have?

PALAFOX: I don't know in terms of numbers how many we have in San Diego, but it nowhere near comes to the 10 million that Johannesberg has.

CAVANAUGH: And you really liked the way it felt?

PALAFOX: Exactly. It's really a beautiful place, and on top of that, it provides the necessities the people need there.

CAVANAUGH: What could trees do for San Diego, which is such a scenic community anyway?

PALAFOX: I think all communities need trees. The thing about what's tragic here in San Diego is we went through a very large growth spurt back through the '80s. And in 1985 through 2003, there was a study done, an analysis about the ecosystem. And it comes to find out that we lost about 26% of our forest canopy here in San Diego. That puts additional pressure on our storm drains, our warming and so on.


PALAFOX: Well, trees, for example, a hundred trees at maturity can capture as much as 200,000 gallons of water and trap it and keep it and not let it go into our water ways, into our ocean, etc. So that's one benefit. In addition to that, when you're talking about the carbon dioxide, it can catch as much as five tons or more of carbon dioxide. That's for our own health. So those are just two primary things that the benefits, you know, come into.

CAVANAUGH: And why did we lose as much a large proportion of our trees?

PALAFOX: Just a huge increase in development. Unfortunately, when you take out existing trees, and you replant, by all means, those trees really don't come into benefit until 20 to 30†years later. So we're short changing ourselves that way.

CAVANAUGH: 1-888-895-5727 and Jim is on the line from La Mesa. Go ahead with your question, Jim.

NEW SPEAKER: I have three thoughts. One, you were talking about trees and development. On interstate 15 up around Highway†56, they build a whole bunch of cookie cutter homes up there, 15, 18†years ago. And I just drive by there today and realized they're buffered because the trees have all grown in.


NEW SPEAKER: And canary island dates, they seem to be disappearing around town. Everyone wants to trim them up like a pineapple. And it seems like a couple years after they have been trim up, they seem to die. Any ideas? And the other thing is, I live in La Mesa, and it has an amazing green strip that stretches from Lemon Grove through the mount helix area all wait into El Cajon, and if anybody wants to know what trees look like, this is the place.

CAVANAUGH: Thanks for that example.

PALAFOX: Well, basically, the canariensis, the Phoenix canariensis, is a variety of people that does well here. However, it has been -- coming to problems with -- I guess it's a disease that was very prominent. And I know we have had some problems here in San Diego. I don't know the name of the disease, but it does have a problem. And that is what's killing them off.

CAVANAUGH: Not the pruning them.

PALAFOX: Not necessarily the pruning them. But more of the fact that it's -- it just has not performed well over the long-haul with the advent of the disease.

CAVANAUGH: Are there some trees that you think are particularly suited to San Diego?

PALAFOX: First of all, yeah, the jacarandas, the peppermint trees.

CAVANAUGH: Peppermint.

PALAFOX: It's an aganis flexosa that does really well here. There's an Australian willow. Many of the -- of course are our own natives, whether an oak or sycamore, but it's planting the right tree at the right time, and really doing your research. Number one is the city has a recommended list of small, medium sized trees depending on your situation. So you can always refer to that list through their website. Number two, always go into a garden center that offers the correct information so you can get knowledgeable about that.

CAVANAUGH: Wee got a call from divaniel in Clairemont. Go ahead.

NEW SPEAKER: Yes, I've planted a couple strips of trees in my neighborhoods, when I lived in Northpark and over there, and university heights. And I was very saddened to see some very mature -- I know the eucalyptus trees aren't the most fun tree that people think of, but they do a lot of shading in the city. There were quite a few huge eucalyptus cut down by the trolley station downtown. And I just don't know why they would cut down such huge growth when we need so much. Right there in particular because there's not much mature growth there, and they keep on developing -- as a poor person, you know, that's life. That's life that we have in the city.

CAVANAUGH: It changes your quality of life. Yes, thank you for that comment. I know they did the same thing in Leucadia.

PALAFOX: Typically, it has to do with safety. It has to do with -- if there's -- the possibility where you have a lot of pedestrian traffic or the potential for something happening or a tree comes down, and say on. They will always air on error on the side of safety.

CAVANAUGH: It's tragic when these old tree it's†--

PALAFOX: Exactly. Unfortunate that does occur. But many times we don't get replanted right away. And so that's where people like this individual on the phone and so on should get on the phone with their council men. Because putting the pressure to get these trees replanted -- many times trees come down, but they don't go back up right away.

CAVANAUGH: You can politically lobby for trees.

PALAFOX: Absolutely.

CAVANAUGH: I've got a little disclosure here to say I have done that in my city, and I've been told that the roots are causing problems for the pipes and you should ground. And this far, they can only plant palms.

PALAFOX: And that's actually changing. It goes back to the right tree and the right place. That is the case in many instances. We have had situations where palms -- or autos I should say do play a dramatic role in the piping and so on. So finding that right combination that'll work for that area.

CAVANAUGH: And do palms count as trees in your mind?

PALAFOX: Nowadays, they don't. Basically a palm is nothing but a giant blade of grass. It's sometimes frowned on, especially by a lot of tree organizations because they don't see the benefit. I see the beauty. I think there's room for everybody.

CAVANAUGH: Is there an economic argument for trees as well that you could make if you were trying to lobe for them.

PALAFOX: Absolutely. There have been studies done where as much as on a per tree basis, after you take out things like the maintenance and even the contractioning of sidewalks, and so on, a tree, when it -- over a 40-year period, will actually be the benefit of about $3,700 per tree.

CAVANAUGH: Wow, okay.

PALAFOX: And when when you're talking about -- I usually say, what would a hundred trees do in San Diego? And a hundred trees actually come out to well over a hundred -- in terms of a profit, over $100,000 in profit for the city.


PALAFOX: Due to better capturing of water, the CO2, etc., etc..

CAVANAUGH: So we had a caller, we don't have time, but he's saying what can individuals do to get involved to increase the number of trees?

PALAFOX: You can always contact the San Diego urban tree club through the Mission Hills garden club. Of you can always contact the California urban forestry council up in LA or up in the bay area. They're actually advocating on a state wide basis.

CAVANAUGH: But for people who want to do it in their own community, they can call their couple men.

PALAFOX: Exactly. Absolutely.

CAVANAUGH: Fausto Palafox, thank you for coming in and giving us a glimpse into a way of modifying our urban environment here. And thank you for calling in this.