The city of Oakland has a tree canopy of just 12% — far short of the 40% mandate required by the State of California by 2020, under AB 32. So why, then, is it cutting down perfectly good, adult trees?

In 2003, Urban Releaf planted 36 purple leaf plum, evergreen pear, and aristocrat pear trees at Oakland’s Longfellow Elementary School, a project funded by the California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection. The trees flourished under good sunlight and matured into majestic beauties which added color and vibrancy to the otherwise drab urban environment. They also added environmental benefits, such as an increased oxygen supply and a reduction in the amount of greenhouse gas emissions.

One year after the project, planted with the assistance of 250 youth from East Bay Conservation Corps, Youth Partnership, and Longfellow elementary students, was completed, Longfellow, whose student population was 90% African American, closed. It was replaced by the Oakland Military Institute. For years, the trees peacefully coexisted with the school (which, despite outspending other public schools on per-student expenses by a large margin, has underperforming test scores, according to the East Bay Express) and were regularly maintained by Urban Releaf’s urban forestry crew. The trees also received national recognition when they were used as the backdrop for a 2012 NBC Nightly News feature on Urban Releaf. They also appear, in all their glory, in Google View.

That all changed this year, when the school suddenly decided the leaves from the trees were an issue. The school contacted the City, who sent a crew to cut the trees down, failing to notify Urban Releaf of this action. When Urban Releaf Executive Director and founder Kemba Shakur caught wind of this, she was dismayed. “These were beautiful, healthy trees,” she said.

Urban Releaf staff then contacted Robert Zahn, the City of Oakland’s Tree Supervisor I for the Public Works Tree Services Program. Zahn indicated the trees were permitted to be removed, as there was no record of the tree installation in city records. Urban Releaf then contacted Cal-Fire, who did maintain a copy of the MOU between the City of Oakland and Urban Releaf in their archive. Cal-Fire reiterated the trees were planted properly and had been documented. Unfortunately, because the original grant was more than ten years old, Cal-Fire could not legally require the City to replant the trees.

Cal-Fire Program Administrator John Melvin told Urban Releaf, “It is troubling that grant funded trees were cut down,“ adding “It is a shame that apparently healthy trees planted by a grant in Oakland were removed without some sort of notice to those who took the time to plant them and maintain them. If this becomes a recurring problem in Oakland, we would have to consider carefully whether further grant fund investment there would be appropriate.”

There are indications, however, that unauthorized tree-cutting by Tree Services is, in fact, a recurring problem in Oakland. In a 2010 post, entitled “City of Oakland Tree Services Mismanaged and in Disarray,” the We Fight Blight Blog reported on a neighbor who observed first hand an unauthorized, illegal tree removal in North Oakland in violation of the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

The blogger goes on to report on the lack of accountability from the Tree Service Department and a supervisor’s apparent unfamiliarity with “both the procedural requirements for public noticing in the city’s own tree ordinances and of the requirements of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.” When asked who conducted a tree hazards analysis report permitting the trees to be cut, the supervisor refused to answer and told the neighbor she would need to submit a Public Records Act request through the City Attorney.

Clearly, what happened to the trees Urban Releaf planted at Longfellow was not an isolated incident. But with very little oversight, short of catching Tree Services in the act, it’s hard to say how widespread this problem is. But it does point to the City’s shoddy record-keeping practices, which could result in a Lorax-like scenario whereby all the undocumented trees in Oakland are cut down, further exposing residents to the Urban Heat Island Effect, impacts of global warming, and other health hazards, such as asthma.

“The City of Oakland’s trees need to be protected and Urban Releaf’s work needs to be valued,” said Program Manager Kevin Jefferson. “Those trees were 10 years old and their value in terms of air and water quality benefits was just being reached. This points to the need for a citywide tree inventory, which would not only detail numbers of trees, but also the benefits of trees.”

In the meantime, concerned residents are encouraged to contact Urban Releaf via email — at oaklandreleaf (at) — if they see or suspect Tree Services of cutting down trees without proper authorization, or have first-hand knowledge of such practices taking place. Tree lovers can also contact Tree Services supervisor Robert Zahn directly at [email protected]