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How Did Sacramento Get So Many Trees?

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

A tree canopy covers much of midtown Sacramento, as seen in this aerial photo.

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

This is the first story in CapRadio’s new series “Great Question!” where our we answer listeners' most pressing inquiries. Learn more at capradio.org/greatquestion.

The first known reference to Sacramento as the “City of Trees” dates back to 1855, and by the early 1900s the saying had clearly taken hold.

One place to witness the city’s incredible canopy is in Land Park, where at 33 percent coverage that area has the most trees in the city.

Jennifer Drayton lives in Arden Park, a neighborhood that is right up there with Land Park in terms of canopy coverage. In fact, it was the trees that spurred Drayton and her husband to buy a house there.

“The things that we really fell in love with are the two magnificent oak trees in the back and the beautiful maple that’s in front,” Drayton explained during a recent chat at her home.

But she always wondered: “How did Sacramento get to have so many trees?”

From left to right, the Sacramento Tree Foundation's Torin Dunnavant, reporter Randol White, question asker Jennifer Drayton and research ecologist Paula Peper talk about Sacramento's tree canopy in Drayton's Arden Park backyard.Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

Paula Peper is a retired research ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service and is considered one of the top historians on Sacramento’s trees.

She and fellow researcher E. Gregory McPherson published the definitive paper on this topic in 1998, “From nature to nurture: The history of Sacramento’s urban forest.”

Peper says Sacramento was initially called the “City of Plains” because it was mostly void of trees — but that quickly changed: A miner stuck 12 cottonwood trees in the ground near his tent. “That was the first planting in Sacramento,” Peper said.

After, it was a community effort. Peper said eucalyptus trees were among the first imported, helping to dry out swampy areas. Later, the city’s elite, including Margaret Crocker and C.K. McClatchy, influenced the planting of trees, including in Capitol Park.

Even fads helped populate the city’s canopy at times. “Originally, the big planting deal was locust and willow. We don’t plant any of those along streets today,” Peper said.

Elms were followed by Palms, then fruit trees were planted along city streets prior to the 1920s, but those were messy, so that trend didn’t last long.

By the 1930s, Peper says Sacramentans were planting one tree for every two residents, which sparked talk that the city had a more robust canopy than Paris. “We don’t have more trees than Paris,” she said. “We have more trees per capita,” adding that Paris has roughly one tree per 10 people.

A project out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology called Treepedia uses technology to prove this. It maps tree density around the world with Google’s street view mapping.

“In the case of Sacramento, it’s well above the average if we compare with other major cities in the United States and the world,” said Fabio Duarte, a researcher with the project.

Land Park, shown here, is one of the most canopied areas of Sacramento.Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

Sacramento’s top city arborist, Kevin Hocker, agrees with the findings. “We have one of the top urban forests — in terms of numbers of trees, shade coverage, diversity, in terms of distribution of trees,” Hocker said. “In every measure that you can measure, we’re up in the top.”

But as Hocker notes, the city can still do better. Land Park, a heavily canopied neighborhood, is also very affluent, and that’s mostly how it works in Sacramento: The wealthier the neighborhood, the more trees. Other ZIP codes in the city have tree coverage below 10 percent.

Hocker says an urban forestry master plan is now underway to create more tree equity, and the city is asking the public where it should put more trees.

“And we’re trying to work out how that looks in an equitable fashion,” Hocker said.

See the full map here.

The city is also changing its metric for what types of trees should be planted. Currently, the dominant species in the area is London plane.

Torin Dunnavant with the Sacramento Tree Foundation says that tree is a sycamore hybrid and has reached saturation levels, accounting for more than 15 percent of all trees in the city. To enhance diversity, the city and its tree partners will rotate London plane out of the mix for now.

Climate change is also a consideration. Sacramento will likely not be hospitable to birches and redwoods, but hotter, drier seasons could pave the way for palo verde and an unusual variety of eucalyptus.

The calculus for preferable trees used to be strictly tied to shade and its energy savings. Dunnavant said the organization now uses a tree’s ability to offset carbon emissions as the main factor.

“The more carbon a tree both stores through just in its own mass and then how much carbon it helps to avoid by shading buildings and things like that, that’s what’s setting our goals now,” Dunnavant said.

A 2018 city report listed 87,324 trees within its nearly 100 square miles. Hocker says that number only reflects street trees and ones in parks, and the data was collected in 2010.

“I think that it is fair to say that the city maintains approximately 100,000 public trees,” Hocker said. “Overall, there are approximately 1 million trees within city limits on both public and private property.”

Leaves on a tree in Jennifer Drayton's yardAndrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

Hocker said canopy coverage is a more useful measure of an urban forest.

“The City of Sacramento currently has 19.1 percent of it’s land covered by trees,” Hocker said.

But he believes the community can push to grow that number substantially. “How much more will ultimately depend on the will of the people, but studies show that an overall canopy coverage of 35 percent within the next 20 years is an attainable goal.”

Apart from aesthetics, one reason experts say it's important for cities to have urban forests as large as Sacramento’s is because people who live in tree-rich areas are generally healthier and happier overall, according to studies.

On this fact, Hocker, Dunnavant and Peper all agree.

Reporter Randol White records the sound of question asker Jennifer Drayton raking leaves in her Arden Park yard.Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

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