Cut To The Chase


May 31, 2002

June 14, 2002

Protect what merits protection

On May 1, Watt Commercial Properties had workers chop down three mature jacaranda trees in downtown San Diego. These trees, estimated to be at least 50 years old, were part of a view corridor on Ash street running to the bay, where the jacarandas bloom profusely each year.

The project, two 18-story apartment towers called Watt Little Italy at the corner of Ash and State streets, will have 33 new trees on the block once completed, though I'm told none of which will ever match the size and grandeur of those killed. But what's to keep them in place? What's to stop others from being removed -- legally or illegally?

At the City's Planning Commission, CCDC representative Walter Rausch expressed his heartfelt embarrassment that CCDC was not even aware that a permit was required to remove these trees. They also agreed to send letters to all projects in the pipeline in their area to educate them of City Council policies with respect to public trees. But current policy -- as well as cultural practice -- is to allow the urban forest to be chopped down with almost no consideration.

Aside from basic compliance with a legal process, and enforcement of that process, what's needed in the city is for the few established and remaining natural features of the city to be respected for their real value. You cannot simply go out and replace a 50- or even 25-year-old tree. Once gone, they are lost -- and what will protect new ones? The canyons, chaparral-lined steep slopes, creeks and many public trees are a part of what define San Diego. They are critical to our quality of life -- as well as providing practical functions for pollution absorption, cleansing and reduction -- and respites for wildlife.

As any urban area grows, these features become more and more valuable to more people. If they are not protected -- if the culture does not evolve to value these things -- and the city does not develop the culture and means to protect and value them -- they will be destroyed. They are being destroyed every week in San Diego. Just as these trees were killed, canyons are being filled, wetlands paved over, still in the name of progress.

Our city has a long way to go to establish, protect and respect our urban forest and remaining natural areas. At the Planning Commission hearing I asked city staff who a citizen could call if they see a city tree about to be cut. What do they advise you to do? After much waffling, they suggested calling Neighborhood Code Compliance. But they admitted that would not get you any immediate response if you have a potential tree mugging in progress.

The most practical approach would be to approach the crew and inquire if they have a permit. But how many of us know whether a permit would be required to remove any particular tree? How many of us want to approach a man with a chainsaw and ask? It appears that even though it's potentially vandalism to kill public trees, there's precious little a citizen can do to effectively intervene -- and insufficient support for that intervention if they attempt it.

There needs to be a clear place for citizens to call and get a competent, neutral evaluation of an incident-in-process. Should we call 911? Staff didn't seem to think so. But if you saw an auto-theft in process, you'd call wouldn't you? Is a 50-year-old tree being killed less important than any auto-theft? In our city right now, it appears that it is.

This reminds me of recent debates about illegal grading, dumping and sewage vandalism incidents. In each case was no clear place for the public to call to get a competent and quick check on the activity, and the perception is you shouldn't "bother" the police. I finally persisted and was told that yes, the public really should call the police if they see questionable activity. But it appears the police are not well-supported to deal with this kind of crime.

Part of the cultural issue is that many of these activities are or have been legal. But as population growth pressures continue, these issues -- which could also include things like graffiti, litter, illegal signs -- could all rightly be considered "quality of life" crimes. While they seem minor in terms of needing emergency enforcement, they are also early indicators of whether a community or area has people looking out for what is there -- and how they value what is there. In community policing, this is known as "eyes on the street." What we need is also, "eyes on the creeks, canyons and trees" -- and the appropriate city-enforcement system to respond.

To aid this process, permits should be registered online for 24-hour access -- so at least someone could call up a location and see if the activity was known to the city. Without an immediate competent, screening process of some sort, much that should not be lost, will continue to be lost.

The first level of "screening" must be done in the communities themselves. Part of the shame of this most recent tree-killing is that no one in the vicinity felt in a position to intervene when the crews showed up, and attempt to prevent something that was illegal and cannot now be undone. Appreciation is due to CCDC forthrightly noting their ignorance and moving now to educate themselves and others. Continued public education will be essential throughout the city -- including who we gonna call -- and the institutional support in both the police and city attorney's office to deal with it.

No law alone can protect trees or canyons or anything else in Southern California. There must be an effective combination of citizen, city and legal activities that actually value these things for the long term.

I'm told that these trees will not have died in vain (arboricide). Mayor Murphy is working with the Tree Advisory Board to bring forward policies that will inventory, support and properly value the urban forest. They deserve our support. We have a good foundation in San Diego, but have such a long way to go. Let's go there -- and let's see that all the quality of life crimes are dealt with efficiently and effectively.

Chase is editor of San Diego Earth Times and chair of the mayor's Environmental Advisory Board. E-mail her at


May 31, 2002

June 14, 2002