Oakland Gets Its Trees Back
How a busy septuagenarian inspired the city’s reforestation.
Arthur Boone said that when he retired, he realized he had a lot of time to be useful.
Photo by D. Ross Cameron
A few years ago, Oakland, a city named for trees, stopped planting them. The recession forced the city to slash its budget, and in 2008, city workers stopped planting, watering, and pruning trees. At the time, Arthur Boone was newly retired and volunteering for the Sierra Club. He talked to a city employee, who suggested Boone start a volunteer tree planting group to make up the difference. Boone wasn’t convinced. Sure, he had been a Boy Scout, but he really didn’t know much about trees. “‘Well, it’s not difficult,’” Boone remembers the city worker telling him. “‘The roots go in the ground. They need water, and they need a stake.’”
That was all the persuading that Boone—a Yonkers-born polymath who worked as an Episcopalian minister, director for Rhode Island’s Commission for Human Rights, and a nationally recognized recycling educator before retiring—needed. In 2010, he started the Sierra Club Tree Team. Boone’s wife donated $500, funding the group’s first trees. As the funding and number of volunteers grew, so did the number of Oakland trees: That first year, the tree team planted about 100. The next year, 300. The team has now planted over 1,500 trees, thanks to the hundreds of volunteers that have given up their weekend mornings to plant trees around the city.
Why focus on trees? There are the environmental benefits—trees absorb carbon and help combat some of the deleterious effect on the environment—but there are other, less obvious reasons. There’s an economic motive: Trees raise property values. Then there are the health benefits: Studies have shown that hospital patients recover faster when they have a view of nature compared to looking at a blank wall or abstract art. There are historical implications, too. The program is the group’s small way of reversing the human tendency toward deforestation. A few years ago, Yale researchers tallied up the number of trees in the world. They counted more than 3 trillion, about 46 percent fewer trees than there were at the start of human civilization. “We try to remedy that to a certain extent,” Boone said. “We’ve got a small voice, but we care.”
Plus, there’s the simple fact that everyone loves trees. “Trees are just nice. It’s kind of corny, but it’s true,” Boone said. “I had great memories as a kid from trees. I broke my arm falling out of a tree. I used to climb a tree, and Jerry used to step on my fingers, because I was two years younger than he was—stuff like that.”
The group’s members focus their attention on what’s called environmentally disadvantaged communities, ones the city defines as “disproportionately burdened by multiple sources of pollution.” (Urban Releaf, serving Oakland and Richmond, offers a similar tree service to low-income neighborhoods.) Historically, foliage has tracked with income levels: Rich neighborhoods are appealingly leafy, their poor counterparts exposed and barren. Anyone living in one of those environmentally disadvantaged communities can select a free tree from the city’s list of approved types—maybe a Sensation boxelder or perhaps a scarlet oak—and the group will plant it in the planting strip, the land between the sidewalk and the street. The team will also give the homeowner a guide illustrated with hand drawn instructions to tree care.
Sometimes, the tree team members have to convince people to take their trees. “A lady on 36th Avenue, she moved into her husband’s family’s house just below Foothill [Boulevard]. She looked up and down the street and said, ‘There isn’t a darn tree on this whole block,’” Boone said. “She stuck her nose in everybody’s face. We got 35 trees out of 54 houses. They’re smallish trees, but they’re coming along. In the spring they’re beautiful.”
Over the years, the group cobbled together funding from a variety of sources. Former city Councilmember Jane Brunner, a longtime advocate for planting trees in the city, helped fund the team, as did the Bank of America. In 2015, the group got a state grant to plant 1,500 trees before December 2018.
A few months ago, the tree team split into two groups: a Sierra Club-funded subgroup, and a group called Trees for Oakland Flatlands led by Hetty Chin and Derek Schubert. The latter group will continue using the state funds to finish planting the trees before the deadline and is currently lobbying the city to add tree services back to the budget.
As for Boone? The septuagenarian will continue to stay busy with the Sierra Club, organizing and advocating, the same way he’s done throughout his life. “When I was 12 years old, my mother said to me, ‘You have time; make yourself useful,’” he said. “When I retired, I realized that I had a lot of extra time on my hands. I wanted to be useful. With this program, I said, ‘Well that’s something I can do.’ If I put my shoulder to the wheel, things will happen. If I don’t, it won’t.”