Debbie Arrington

Look out for trees. Urban forest advocates ask people to help

Elm trees that are diseased are removed to keep the diseases from spreading.
Elm trees that are diseased are removed to keep the diseases from spreading. Sacramento Bee file

Our trees need eyes.

The more people who look out for our urban forest, the healthier it will be, reasons the Sacramento Tree Foundation. Ultimately, that can lead to a healthier community as well.

During our prolonged drought, the City of Trees lost thousands of its woody residents, weakened by lack of water and threatened by disease. Efforts are underway to protect the trees we still have as well as heal holes in our urban forest.

This community effort starts with people looking out for their neighborhood trees, especially endangered elms.

“We need citizen scientists looking at trees,” said Matt Van Donsel of the Sacramento Tree Foundation. “We want to monitor the trees particularly in spring, but also revisit them in summer and fall. That way, we can keep track of the trees we still have.”

Currently, the foundation is recruiting volunteer observers for STEP – Save the Elms Program. Restarted in 2016 after a lengthy hiatus, STEP surveys the health of local American and English elms, species that were devastated in Sacramento by Dutch elm disease.

“These trees are around 100 years old,” Von Donsel said. “Dutch elm disease is incurable. If we find an infected tree, it needs to be taken out so it doesn’t spread.”

Sacramento once had thousands of elms lining streets of its oldest neighborhoods.

“It’s estimated that Sacramento had about 20,000 elms at one time,” Von Donsel said. “Now, there are about 2,200 left on public land, such as city right-aways and medians. Those trees are the ones we’re focused on.”

While residents tend to pay attention to trees on their own property, the city elms are the ones that could use assigned guardians. In a series of spring workshops, the foundation will provide training. Volunteers will learn the difference between Dutch elm and other maladies. A smartphone app allows them to record their observations and share photos with the foundation and city foresters. Over time, the app will provide a detailed health record for each elderly elm.

STEP started back in the 1990s when Dutch elm was rampant and long before smartphones. Budget cuts eventually eliminated that volunteer effort, Von Donsel said.

Using new technology, the foundation re-introduced STEP last year as a pilot program. It was an immediate success.

“We sprinted past our goals,” he said. “We had 50 volunteers monitor 750 trees, 34 percent of the population. We are currently aiming for 100 volunteers and 1,000 trees monitored.”

The success of STEP will be part of the discussion at Sac Tree’s sixth annual Greenprint Summit.

Community leaders and tree lovers will gather Thursday, Jan. 26, for this day-long event, showcasing local action and national research. Among the themes will be the connection between a healthy urban forest and a healthy community.

“Trees equal better health,” Van Donsel said. “They really do have an impact on neighborhoods.”

Among the featured speakers will be Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, Sacramento Bee publisher Cheryl Dell and Kemba Shakur, executive director of Urban Releaf, an Oakland-based tree-planting and job-making program.

Urban forestry programs such as STEP and the summit are important to keeping Sacramento trees healthy, Van Donsel said.

“We became the City of Trees because of hard work,” he said, “but we need engaged citizens in our neighborhoods to keep us the City of Trees.”


What: STEP (Save the Elms Program) is looking for new volunteers to monitor neighborhood elms. Registration opens in February for new

When: Tentative dates and places for volunteer training:

  • Saturday, April 8, Coloma Community Center in Elmhurst
  • Thursday, April 20, The Sierra 2 Center in Curtis Park
  • Saturday, May 20, location to be determined


Greenprint Summit

What: A day-long event sponsored by the Sacramento Tree Foundation devoted to the health of urban forests and restoring nature to neighborhoods with local leaders and national experts.

When: 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 26

Where: The Guild Community Theater, 2828 35th St., Sacramento

Registration: $80

Details: 916-974-4305,