Inquiry: Estrangement X – Oakland’s Toxic Tree Services Versus The Environment

Credit: Photo by Sara Silva, Carroll St Resident

by Uriél Danā, Contributing Editor

This series on estrangement seeks to understand some of the differing faces of estrangement and the crossroads it approaches for good or ill.

Over the last four years, Americans have experienced firsthand the destruction done by a party devoid of empathy and motivated only by greed and profit. Major climate policies governing clean air, water, wildlife, and toxic chemicals were rolled back or dismantled.

It wasn’t only our environmental policies that took a beating. By 2020, Covid 19  had brought a staggering amount of deaths to family, friends, communities, and finances. When you are this beaten down it is easy to give up. Often it is the time when predators become the most vicious and we need to fight back the most.

Allow me to share with you my private battle over the last year trying to save a grove of old-growth trees. Four Acacias and three Elms. They live on a small private lot that, until a couple of years ago, was owned my building. The grove is fenced off to public access but is loved by nearly a hundred residents in the four buildings that grace our street. They are the only adult trees left on our street and provide a home to dozens of birds, squirrels, and raccoons. It is home to a nest of rare hummingbirds, doves, crows, and the occasional Nightingale.

During the California fires of 2020, our air became un-breathable. Each one of these trees became a sentinel to feed our lungs.Each mature tree can remove 120-240 pounds of hazardous air pollutants per year, absorb 48 pounds a year of carbon dioxide and absorb gaseous pollutants. My lungs and immune system were damaged during my time as an Air Force Veteran during the Vietnam era. I’m not sure if I would be breathing today without the help of these trees working as hard as they did producing carbon and oxygen to protect us all.

Privately these trees also have helped protect my mental health during a personal time of great despair. For nearly a year I was confined to my apartment after skin cancer forced the amputation of a third of my bottom lip. Treatment was painful and disfiguring. Reconstruction took twelve hours of surgery and three surgeons. I did not recognize myself. The beauty and calm of our grove and its wildlife gave me hours of comfort. Not a day has gone by in my 18 years living here that I have not felt profound love and gratitude for these trees. It is for them I speak, I fight, I grieve.

When cities remove trees there is a process that is to be followed. This is legal policy, as well as new environmental concerns For example, the City of Oakland, received a $1,000,000 grant from CALFIRE, California’s forestry organization to manage its urban forest. This comes directly from California’s Climate Investment Fund. The City has taken the grant but seems to have ignored the prime directive of those grants.

Residents often are shocked to discover treasured old-growth trees removed without notice, parks destroyed with little or no regard for their resident’s objections. This article is to help people understand their rights as residents. The City of Oakland repeatedly ignores the ethics and guidelines for the International Society of Arborists (ISA) as well as its own Protected Trees Ordinance by the Tree Services Department. It is so bad that the Director of The Stanford Environmental Law Clinic wrote to the city of Oakland, expressing serious concern over Oakland’s Urban Forest Practices. Oakland residents refer to Tree Services as the Grim Reapers.

The first part of this process requires the city to legally notify every resident affected by a tree’s removal, in writing, 20 working days ahead of their destruction. (Ordinance OMC 12.35.080 Subsection H).

In the case of the Carroll Street Grove, this ordinance was violated twice. Our building’s owner was notified by mail (he lives several counties away and owns multiple buildings) and he personally put up a notice to the tenants. This violation ignored sixty residents’ legal right to be given the opportunity to comment on the removal of these seven trees during a public consultation period.

For example, with the Carroll Street Grove, a surveyor had been spotted and spoken with by residents. He had bragged about how the lot was to be developed and yet the permit was for non-development. We were able to present compelling evidence to the Head of Tree Services, David Moore, that the applicant was cutting down the trees for development using a non-development permit in order to bypass stricter California Environmental Quality Regulations. (CEQA). Our evidence was ignored, even though other members of Oakland Tree Services thought it was suspicious that seven trees needed to be removed at one time for property not going to be developed.

By refusing to investigate the evidence of development, we were told by another Bay Area senior arborist that Oakland was complicit in allowing the permit applicant to break California State Law: the Unfair Business Practices Act/Unfair Competition Law.

 The second part of this process requires that trees to be removed must be red-tagged. Our trees were not tagged until we forced the issue.

 The city is required to notify each resident in writing, tag each tree to be removed, and verify these actions to ensure the public consultation period.

 The Permit of the Carroll Street trees to be destroyed was approved by Oakland Tree Services David Moore and Tod Lawsen, Senior Tree Inspector before they had read the letters submitted from the public consultation period.

The consultation with the public had to be done on Zoom due to the pandemic. Residents were allowed only a two-minute brief statement but the permit applicant was given a very wide berth, speaking first and last with no opportunity for correction of incorrect data.

It’s important to know that residents do have the right to appeal but it will cost $695.00 and you will only have five days to come up with the money and complete the required paperwork. Personally, our appeal felt more like a required bribe as the permit had been approved before any arguments could be made. We did, however, appeal our case to the Oakland Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission.

 In our appeal, incongruities in the application to remove the trees were underlined by the residents. The lot owner changed his tactics. We were now told that our old-growth trees were a danger to everyone. The applicant fraudulently claimed the trees were damaging the foundations of the building we live in adjacent to the lot. We were able to prove this was not true. The foundations had been checked prior to its sale 18 months earlier and checked a second time when the building was recently seismically retrofit to California standards. We learned that any damage done by any tree is covered by the insurance of the building it falls on, not the lot owner. In an almost extreme act of nature to prove the stability of the trees, we experienced 3 high wind events with gusts of over 60mph during this time. Not a single branch fell.

 Local residents presented evidence to the City of Oakland in appeal documents that the removal of these trees would cause significant harm to our health. The location of the lot is in an area that suffers from a medium-high air pollution burden, as defined by the California EPA. I learned that racist housing practices are directly connected to tree removal and that redlining is not just about voting.

 In the end, Oakland Tree Services only restarted the public consultation period after they had approved the permit to destroy the trees. In what can only be defined as Trumplican-like guidelines for the rape and pillage of the environment, the Carroll Street Grove will be removed violently on Friday, March 12, 2020

The owner of our building did offer to buy the lot when he bought the building but the price had been jacked up over its original asking price. Because of Covid and people being in lockdown, residents tried to negotiate the trees coming down in stages but it was denied. I personally wanted to try and create a go fund me, using my own artwork as a fundraiser to buy the lot and turn it into a wildlife sanctuary. The lot owner said he would give me ten days to raise $375,000. This is what greed looks like.

 My own estrangement with Tree Services for the City of Oakland has left me feeling abused by a parent. I no longer feel safe or loved in my home. Heartbroken and ashamed, I leave you with an excerpt from our Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman:

We will not be turned around

or interrupted by intimidation

because we know our inaction and inertia

will be the inheritance of the next generation

Our Blunders become their burdens

But one thing is certain:

if we merge with might,

and might with right

Uriél Danā on Film ShootUriél Danā has been a Professional Fine Artist 38 years and is a Contributing Editor on the arts and other subjects for two online arts magazines.

She is an Air Force Veteran and former USIA (State Department) Ambassador to the Arts. She is a graduate of the 2016 Writers Guild of the West (Los Angeles, CA) Veterans Writing Project.

A Contributing Editor on the Arts, Buddhism and Culture, Uriél contributes regularly to online and print magazines in addition to international journals. She has won many awards for her poetry and has been included in two anthologies. For National Poetry Month, April 2020, her poems will be featured on San Francisco’s public radio station, KPFA.

A resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, Uri has lived on three continents and visited 44 countries.