The Napa urban forest

2010-08-14T00:00:00Z The Napa urban forestBill Pramuk Napa Valley Register
August 14, 2010 12:00 am  • 

Dear Bill: There seems to be a strong tendency in Napa for large trees to simply be removed when they break sidewalks.

Why do sidewalk maintenance and tree stewardship seem to be more in conflict in the city of Napa, despite its Tree City USA status, than in many other cites? Walking through Old Town in Sacramento is a delight, while walking through my subdivision, planted with small-growing trees doesn’t make me very proud of my own city. Those trees will never create a true urban forest that mitigates heat-island effects, contribute to carbon sequestration in any substantive way, or provide habitat linkages to our oak woodlands and riparian corridors outside the city limits. More often than not the “offending” tree, usually as soon as it has reached 10-15 inches, gets chopped down and replaced with the new flavor of the year. Why not re-think sidewalk maintenance, the way Davis, Sacramento and Alameda have done?

Maybe you can shed light on the following problems:

1) Institutional challenges: Public works engineers aren’t arborists. They have a different perspective from park managers. Hence, whatever causes maintenance and “public safety” problems moves to second priority, and public works trumps parks.

2) Funding problems: It’s cheaper to chop down a majestic shamel ash and replace it with a crape myrtle than find a way to save a mature tree. Sacramento seems to have solved that problem via alliance with the Sacramento Tree Foundation. Do we have a similar institution here in Napa?

3) Lack of public awareness

I would consider getting involved once I have a better idea about the root causes of the symptoms I have described above. Would you mind giving me some pointers based on your experience and knowledge?



Dear RH, This discussion should include trees in the city right of way and trees on private property. For the space available today, we will stay with city-owned trees.

Cities earn the Tree City USA designation by establishing a tree ordinance, a tree committee, like Napa’s Tree Advisory Commission (TAC), which advises the City Council, and by having an annual Arbor Day event. That’s all. 

It’s a good start, but it does not assure state of the art tree stewardship in the city.

Fiscal conservatism often translates into expedient resolution of tree-related problems without much creativity. For example, large-growing tree species have a reputation for breaking sidewalks. The expedient resolution is to remove them and plant little crape myrtles. The creative solution would be collaboration between city departments and the community for tree preservation and urban planning that allows for big trees.

The Public Works Department sometimes makes exceptions in sidewalk, curb and street conformation when an adjacent property owner wants to save a big tree that would otherwise be removed because of infrastructure damage. That is the exception, not the rule, but it can happen when people speak up.

Many trees have been planted with inadequate soil volume, compacted soil, no irrigation in the intended root zone, no barriers to prevent roots from growing under sidewalks, inadequate space for the trunks and buttress root plates, and overhead obstacles. The common scenario is a property owner requesting removal of a problematic city tree adjoining their property.

Napa Parks and Recreation policy on tree removal applications gives the tree division supervisor authority regarding trees under 24-inch trunk diameter. Tree removal applications for larger trees go before the TAC. Removal applications that are denied can be appealed to the TAC and then to the City Council.

Approved removals might be posted on the street, but sometimes take the neighborhood by surprise. In those cases, activists in favor of tree preservation are too late, writing letters to the editor or complaining to the city, after the fact.

One approach to improving this situation is the “right-tree-in-the-right-place” movement, which has gained ground in recent years. It is based on a good idea, but it has focused too much on selecting trees for small, inhospitable locations and not enough on finding and creating suitable sites for big trees.  

Proactive planning and advocacy are needed for improving our urban forest.

Local nonprofit organizations can be a great force for good tree planning and stewardship in cooperation with city government. In addition to the Sacramento Tree Foundation, good examples include Mountain View Trees,(, Canopy (, Palo 

Alto), San Francisco Friends of the Urban Forest (, City Trees (, Redwood City), Baton Rouge Green (, Louisiana), LEAF (Local Enhancement & Appreciation of Forests (, Toronto, Canada, city of Orlando: Green Up (, Florida, Trees New York (, New York City). That is just a sampling.  

Napa does not have such an organization.

California ReLeaf (, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to empower grassroots efforts and build partnerships to enhance urban forests, could be of enormous help here in Napa if a few citizens take interest and decide to get something going.

Rob Hansen, supervisor of the city of Napa Department of Parks and Recreation, Tree Division, said that he and his department would be happy to work with such a group if one is formed.

How about it: Napa Shade or The Napa Tree Foundation? 

Bill Pramuk is a registered consulting arborist. Visit his website,, e-mail questions to or call him at 226-2884.

Copyright 2015 Napa Valley Register. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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