San Jose’s urban forest plan baffles, angers stakeholders
A San Jose street with trees planted by Our City Forest. Photo courtesy of Our City Forest.

An ambitious plan laying out the future of San Jose’s urban forest is riddled with errors, omissions and a lack of vision, according to stakeholders who say they were left out of the process.

In March, the city published a draft of its community forest management plan. The document, which reflects two years of work by the San Jose Department of Transportation and consultant Dudek, describes the precarious state of the city’s urban forest. It notes that canopy coverage shrank by 2.7 square miles in recent years, and that the city hasn’t updated its tree inventory since 2014.

The plan identifies fractured management, inadequate funding and confusion over tree ownership as significant challenges to keeping the urban forest alive and well. It also advances solutions for how to better manage trees in the future.

“One of the biggest things we’ve struggled with… is the fractured system we’re working within,” arborist Russell Hansen told San José Spotlight, noting that multiple agencies are involved in managing the city’s trees. “What we’re really trying to do is take that fractured system and figure out how to improve it.”

In recent weeks, stakeholders from the city, county and state have ripped the plan to shreds, citing serious factual mistakes and lack of community feedback. The draft plan—which is labeled 90% complete—is considered to be in such poor shape that some officials have publicly demanded a halt to the plan until the city can appoint a steering committee to guide the process. The completed draft plan is expected to be released Sept. 30.

“This citywide plan should never have been directed from a silo of a few city staff without a citywide stakeholder group, yet it was,” said several current and former county officials in a letter dated June 21, including Vicki Moore, vice chair of the Santa Clara County Planning Commission and Linda LeZotte, a director at Valley Water.

The letter noted that the transportation department and Dudek ignored numerous potential partners as it assembled the draft, including Santa Clara County, Valley Water, San Jose’s 24 school districts, Cal Fire and every City Council district in East San Jose.

Perhaps most glaring is the lack of input from Our City Forest, a nearly 30-year-old nonprofit that plants trees in San Jose. Hansen and Dudek consultant Ryan Allen said they engaged extensively with Rhonda Berry, president and CEO of Our City Forest. But Berry said she only had one substantive meeting with the team in 2019, followed by two years of virtually zero contact.

“The number of inaccuracies and omissions of important issues are reflective of a lack of external stakeholder input during the process,” Berry told San José Spotlight.

In a letter to Dudek on June 30, Berry accused the plan’s writers of omitting dozens of critical topics and including multiple errors and incorrect data. She asserted that the plan inaccurately described Our City Forest’s contributions to San Jose and minimized the organization’s impact.

Berry’s letter noted that the vast majority of urban forest in San Jose is neither owned nor managed by the city, making it all the more important to engage with residents who will be stewards for trees. This is explicitly stated in the draft, “yet the process for developing the plan was anything but.”

Cal Fire, which funded the management plan, has also criticized the draft. In April, the state fire agency sent a letter to Dudek and the City Council that said the objectives of the project have been “woefully underperformed.”

Cal Fire singled out the transportation department and Dudek’s failure to collaborate with outside parties, noting that there was little feedback from minorities or non-English speaking populations. The letter also raised concerns about the fact that only half of the 10 council districts contributed to the draft, and none representing the east side of the city or downtown. Hansen said the city and Dudek have been in touch with all council districts.

The letter from Cal Fire acknowledges that COVID-19 may have hindered some efforts at outreach, but “a lot of this could have likely been overcome by being more communicative, even electronically, with these entities routinely, engaging in follow-up regularly, and, most helpfully, getting started on this process long before you did.”

The letter added that Our City Forest was under-involved in the process and painted in an unfair light.

“I’ve continued to advise the city that they should be an integral part in this process,” said Cal Fire urban forest area supervisor Jimi Scheid, the letter’s author. “(Our City Forest) should be involved as much as feasible given their status as a major stakeholder in the city.”

Hansen told San José Spotlight that the transportation department and Dudek tried to keep Our City Forest engaged throughout the whole process.

“We tried to be fair and objective in what we were finding, and I don’t feel like we were overly critical of Our City Forest,” Hansen said. He added that the transportation department doesn’t agree with all of Cal Fire’s assertions, but responded to its letter by outlining a course of action. “Ultimately we’re working with them and we’re going to try to address every one of their concerns.”

Moore, one of the county officials who asked the city to halt the tree management plan, said she was disheartened by how it minimized Our City Forest’s role in San Jose’s tree canopy.

“Let’s just say it’s perplexing,” Moore told San José Spotlight. “It appears as if there may be a sense within the city, or more specifically within (the transportation department), that the city is in direct competition with groups like Our City Forest for grant funds. And the reality is that that is a very myopic way of looking at things.”

Dudek and the city will continue to solicit community feedback on parts of the draft until August 1, according to the management plan website.

Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter.

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