Sacramento – A Community of Trees

“Trees have no political boundaries,” says Ray Tretheway, executive director of the Sacramento Tree Foundation, “so why just focus on one city or county?”

This question led the Sacramento Tree Foundation to lead a charge in the early 2000s for a regional approach to urban forestry in Sacramento. In 2001, elected officials from 28 Sacramento-area municipalities signed an Urban Forest Compact, and over the next four years, the Sacramento Tree Foundation worked with these public partners and citizen groups to develop the Greenprint Initiative — designed to be a companion to the region’s Blueprint Initiative for gray infrastructure initiatives. The Greenprint Initiative has a simple, yet complex goal: “To guide cities and counties of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments region in developing urban forest initiatives.”[1]

It plans to do this through a combination of properly managing public trees, as well as expanding the region’s trees by five million; adopting strong tree ordinances and policies regulating both public and private trees; and engaging in community partnerships since 80 percent of the area’s urban forest is on private land.

Community planting leader and intern with Sacramento Tree Foundation. Credit: Sacramento Tree Foundation

Community planting leader and intern with Sacramento Tree Foundation. Credit: Sacramento Tree Foundation

“Urban trees are all about people and their value and benefits,” says Tretheway. “We know that there are a lot of businesses and a lot of governmental departments, agencies and elected officials that want to invest in worthy and successful civic engagement and volunteer activities.” The key to the Sacramento Tree Foundation’s success has been making the connection with these groups and working together toward common goals.

When SMUD turned to the Sacramento Tree Foundation to help implement its Shade Tree program, it helped expand the small nonprofit comprised of volunteer, part-time staff into a major partner for urban forestry work. Today, the two partners plant 18,000 trees a year, but while 13,000 go toward the traditional shade tree model, 5,000 are serving another purpose.

In 1998, SMUD began designating some of its trees for a community trees program. Designed to help enhance the tree canopy in public areas like schools and parks, these larger (15-gallon) trees don’t fall under SMUD’s shade policies, allowing the Tree Foundation, SMUD and Urban Forestry program to work together to get trees planted in needed areas in the city.

But the Greenprint Initiative has a major uphill battle to fight, as its Blueprint companion indicated a need for more public or low-impact transportation to help a city that’s population continues to expand — expansions that are eliminating urban forest space.

“Where we had projects that might accommodate 10 housing units per acre, we’re now getting 50 units on an acre. That means zero sidewalks. That means instead of a 30-foot yard, you have a 10-foot yard,” says urban forestry manager Benassini. “There is less and less space in the modern urban area for green infrastructure. It’s troubling. There’s no place to put big trees. Trees are not always considered part of the necessary infrastructure. They’re considered an amenity rather than a necessity.”

However, according to the Greenprint Initiative, by doubling the region’s urban canopy, 10 million pounds of air pollutants will be removed annually, while shade trees also can extend asphalt’s life by 10 years and increase property values by 10 percent.[2]

“We all talk about the importance of urban forestry and trees,” relates Benassini, “but somehow between talking about how important it is and executing it, we’ve got a disconnect. We need policies, like tree ordinances, that reflect that the community support is there and what the elected officials think are great ideas.”

Getting Sacramento’s policies and actions to align with the city’s pride in its trees is a major priority for the Urban Forestry program over the next several years, but thanks to the fact that the city has a history of tree planting and preservation, accomplishing that task successfully is very feasible.

“We have a very strong tradition of planting trees in Sacramento,” says Tretheway. “In one era, it will be local government, in one era outstanding individuals and other times the Chamber of Commerce or Boy Scouts. We have a rich and deep history of trees.”


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[1] Sacramento Tree Foundation. Plant. Purpose and Goals of the Greenprint. (accessed Sept. 7, 2012).

[2] Sacramento Tree Foundation. Plant. Elements of the Greenprint. (accessed Sept. 7, 2012).