New Plan Sees Forest for the Trees

By Jorge Casuso

Ever since Santa Monica's founder Senator John P. Jones planted a Moreton Bay Fig at his estate, city leaders have had a hand in an often-haphazard planting effort that has sometimes failed to see the forest for the trees.

On Tuesday night, the City Council unanimously approved a Forest Management Plan that will serve as a guide for the selection, planting, pruning and removal of Santa Monica's 29,000 public trees, which, over the years, have grown into a complex ecosystem giving shade and color to city spaces.

"This is the first (such plan) in Santa Monica," said Walter Warriner, the Community Forester in charge of developing the plan. "There was a tree ordinance and policy that was superficial."

"It was more haphazard," said Mayor Pam O'Connor. "This is a road map, and I'm glad we're starting down that road."

The new plan - which calls for a comprehensive tree inventory -- encourages planting a wider diversity of trees that also provide a broader canopy for shade. The city's trees represent 218 different species. The most prevalent is the Mexican Fan Palm, which accounts for 3,887 of the total trees; the rarest is a single Macadamia nut tree whose location city officials declined to reveal.

The document provides a breakdown of trees by trunk diameter, height and location.

"Some parts of the city have a pitiful lack of trees, while others have an abundance," said Councilman Paul Rosenstein. "Trees can change a whole neighborhood."

The plan also attempts to save existing trees when possible and establishes a "Heritage Tree" program to protect significant trees. But in some cases, Warriner warns, it doesn't make sense to save a tree, which is "a renewable resource."

"The goal when removing trees is relocating them," Warriner said. "But in some cases it is easier and cheaper to put in new trees. It doesn't make sense sometimes to bend over backwards to save a tree."

Some trees are too big to transplant. In some cases, there isn't enough room between buildings or utility lines to dig up the roots. Others are too large to move under telephone wires or bridges.

A tree with a 14-foot root, for example, required a 200-ton crane when it was recently transplanted to make way for the new Public Safety Facility.

While the plan suggests which species best suit a particular street, the community will often have a say in the final decisions.

"This (plan) is obviously really welcome," said Councilman Michael Feinstein, a Green Party member. "It will involve residents, build community and enhance a sense of place."

"Many years later," Rosenstein said, "we will be able to look back and take some pride in the process we're beginning here today."