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Balboa Park Trees Are Stressed, But There's Hope

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The health of the trees in one of San Diego’s largest park is getting some extra attention because the urban forest here isn’t as healthy as it used to be.

Show transcript

Speaker 1: 00:00 For our next story. We're going to stay at Balboa Park where the health of the trees there is getting some extra love from the Balbo a park conservancy. That's because the parks urban forest isn't as healthy as it used to be. KPBS environment reporter Eric Anderson explains,

Speaker 2: 00:17 and it looks like we're about there. One worst group when you're good. Arborist in Balboa Park Tree. Stuart Bradley. Michael Brown is helping volunteers, planter Bohemia tree in Balboa Park near Quince Street.

Speaker 3: 00:29 It's a Hong Kong orchid is a common name and soil. Think if it grows right in five or 10 years, it's going to look like a big flowery

Speaker 2: 00:35 Sri and dozens of trees were planted during a recent Arbor day celebration.

Speaker 3: 00:39 And then the idea is that hopefully the molds, you know, they'll go down around here. That'll help protect that root system. But this one's gonna be

Speaker 2: 00:45 the planting mark, the completion of a cal fire funded efforts that put 500 new trees in the ground.

Speaker 4: 00:53 Okay.

Speaker 2: 00:54 Brown says trees are one of the things that make the park unique,

Speaker 3: 00:58 such a different feeling than being out in the middle of a concrete or an asphalt parking lot and then being under a grove of ficus trees. You know, everyone can imagine that, right? I'm going to who wants to be out in a a hot parking lot? Well that's what the trees, they help to help prevent that, that parking lot effect

Speaker 2: 01:14 in spite of the newly planted trees, the parks forest still faces challenges.

Speaker 4: 01:19 What we were able to do is we digitize the old data from 20 years ago.

Speaker 2: 01:24 Jacqueline Higgins works for the bell ball park conservancy. She says every tree in the park is now tracked in an online app called open tree map

Speaker 4: 01:33 and we overlaid our new data from the recent inventory that was done last year and we're able to compare and contrast the data sets

Speaker 2: 01:41 and the findings were not particularly reassuring. The latest survey found 4% of the parks' trees were dead. He can says another 4% suffer from poor health.

Speaker 4: 01:51 When you look at that, it's not a huge number because we're talking over 15,000 trees that we're looking at, but when you put numbers to that, the structural value of that 8% decrease is $5 million. So that's a city asset that has just decreased in value for $5 million.

Speaker 2: 02:10 Conservationists are working to reverse the decline. Tomas Herrera Mishler is the president and CEO of the Bell Ball Park Conservancy and he says it's no mystery. Why are the trees are struggling?

Speaker 5: 02:21 Over the course of the last two decades, there's been a real impact from climate change with increased temperatures. Insects that were never here before had been migrating north, and so there's a quite an impact on the health of the trees.

Speaker 2: 02:36 Herrera Mishler says the conservancy is making a concerted effort to care for the health of the city signature urban forest diversity is the key.

Speaker 5: 02:45 So 20 years ago we had 348 different species of trees in the park. We're now up to 448 different tree species in the park. The reason why that's important is because the more diversity, the more resilient forest is, we need have resilient forests because of all the impacts of disease, old age insects and drought.

Speaker 2: 03:07 Diversity means there are fewer eucalyptus trees. There are those tall, fast growing trees with shallow root systems which are prone to falling. When storms hit, they used to account for 40% of the parks' trees. That's down to just over 20% and bell ballparks forest is what the rest of the city could look like. The city's climate action plan in fact calls for a much denser tree canopy outside the park.

Speaker 5: 03:33 We're around 5% in the city now if you want to see what about 30% looks like come to Balboa Park cause that's what we have here in the park. It's super important for many reasons for improved air quality and Lord knows we need that in San Diego.

Speaker 2: 03:47 San Diego is not close to hitting that 30% target outside of Bell Ball Park, but it remains an important goal. Trees clean the air filter storm water, reduce heat and sequester carbon. Eric Anderson KPBS news

Speaker 1: 04:02 from Balboa Park to the city of San Diego. One of the goals of the city's climate action plan is to increase the urban tree canopy to shade 15% of the city by 2020 and increasing that to 35% by 2035 joining me now to talk about the status of that goal is Brian Weidner. He is the forester for the city of San Diego. Brian, welcome. Thank you. Glad to be here. So the last time you were on midday edition, shortly after you started your job in 2017 you estimated that San Diego had about 250,000 trees representing an urban tree canopy over a, that covers about 13% of the city. How close is the city now to meeting the 15% goal by 2020 now?

Speaker 6: 04:46 So right now we're actually doing a tree inventory. We've completed a first phase of that inventory last year and we just got a grant to complete a second phase of our street tree inventory. So we believe, yes, maybe up to 250,000 street trees are within the city limits, but we were, we don't have that final number yet. We're still working on that. Um, as far as, yes, we were 13% canopy cover from 2014 data and we've been planting hundreds of trees each year. We actually planted over 2,500 trees in parks and street tree areas last year. And we're also increasing our efforts to protect our existing trees, uh, by maintaining them better. So that also contributes to increasing our canopy cover. And finally, what we really need to do is do another, uh, assessment, a remote sensing assessment of our canopy cover since it's been about five years since that first assessment was done. Um, and that's how we can really tell where we're at with the canopy cover.

Speaker 1: 05:50 And, and why is this goal so important to the city's climate action plan?

Speaker 6: 05:55 It's important to the city's climate action because the better forest that we have, the more resilient environment there, we're going to have trees, uh, make our community is much more sustainable with the ecosystem benefits of it provided to us, such as storm water runoff. Uh, they clean our air, they do carbon sequestration, uh, but in general two trees actually just make our communities much more livable by providing shade and just having better aesthetics that are on the streets.

Speaker 1: 06:23 And so the Union Tribune reported earlier this year that according to a senior city planner, in order to meet that goal, the city would have to plant about half a million more large trees. What's the city doing to achieve that number?

Speaker 6: 06:36 So again, we are planting hundreds of trees every year. We've been doing that for the last several years, both in parks and as street trees. Uh, the city also been working with the state agency cal fire, they're urban forestry division to go after climate investment of funding for grants to plant additional trees. So, uh, and then on top of that too, we've been working with some of our nonprofit partners, uh, in particular tree San Diego and urban core that have also received some grant funding to plan additional trees. The, the idea that just planting trees is going to get us to that canopy cover coal is not completely correct because again, we need to actually protect and maintain the existing trees that we have, which actually is also outlined in the climate action plan too as well.

Speaker 1: 07:25 And you mentioned a grant. What other funding and resources has the city made available to plant all these trees?

Speaker 6: 07:31 So the city's using a general funds to be planting the trees, um, and we're able to again, tap into those cal fire phones. There's actually a unique foundation foundational fund that we've been using called the fig fund. Uh, so we've tapped into that, uh, under the fig fund. We're only allowed to plant Jacaranda trees, but that's, uh, I guess you could call that sort of the official unofficial tree of the city of San Diego. It's a great tree. It's a pretty good sized tree and, and puts out really nice purple flowers, um, for several months, actually throughout the year.

Speaker 1: 08:07 That sounds fantastic. And I was going to ask, are some trees better, uh, for a canopy than others?

Speaker 6: 08:13 You know, um, it depends on the spacing that you're looking at when you're planting a tree. So if you're planting a tree in a very small space, it's only two or three feet wide, then maybe you'll need to only be able to plant a small tree is such as a crepe myrtle or a Hong Kong orchid. Um, if you have a large space where you can plant trees, then you might want to plant, uh, like a ray wood ash that's gonna grow to be a taller tree, um, and provide more shade and provide more of those ecosystem benefits. But it really just depends on what the space in his like. And on top of that, we want a diversity of trees within our city. So really every tree is playing a critical role, um, not just for a crown canopy cover throughout the city, but again, making our communities much more livable.

Speaker 1: 08:59 And the city has a portal on its website where residents can apply to receive a tree that they can plant on their property. How is that program contributing to the overall goal?

Speaker 6: 09:09 So we have a, a initiative that was started last fall, a free tree SD. It's on the city's website, San Trees. It's a feature that you click on, takes about a minute or two for folks to sign up for a tree. They agreed to water the tree for the first three years. Uh, the tree can only be planted within the city right away. So that's almost always in the parkway is it can't be planted on private property. And so far it's been pretty successful. We probably get nearly a hundred requests a month, uh, for that initiative.

Speaker 1: 09:42 And how can people participate in this program?

Speaker 6: 09:45 So many ways, right? Obviously plant a tree, it would be number one and there is, there does seem to be evidence that there's probably a lot of opportunity to increase our canopy cover over private property. So, uh, we believe that private, private property, private properties have a lot of space where new trees can be planted.

Speaker 1: 10:05 Right. I've been speaking with Brian Weidner, the forester for the city of San Diego. Brian, thank you so much for joining us.

Speaker 6: 10:11 Thank you. Glad to be here.

Speaker 7: 10:20 Yeah.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.