CalFire Grant Expands National City Urban Forest

National City — a small disadvantaged city in San Diego County — will expand its urban forest by planting 1,700 trees in city-managed properties with a $650,000 CAL FIRE grant.

CAL FIRE’s Urban and Community Forestry Program focuses on using trees to provide neighborhoods the benefits of urban forests, such as sequestering greenhouse house gas, filtering airborne particulate for cleaner air, conserving energy through shading, intercepting rain to reduce runoff, making communities healthier, increasing property values, and creating a sense of community.

“The 1,700 new trees with about 10,000 existing trees in the public right of way would assist National City in its goal to become greener and healthier,” said Kuna Muthusamy, P.E., the city’s assistant director of engineering/public works.

Dudek urban forester Scott Stephenson helped the city with its application for the CAL FIRE-administrated grant. The urban forest investment funds were provided by the state’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund for California Climate Investments.

Stephenson said strong responses in four key criteria contributed to the applications success:

Showing a strong carbon sequestration ROI.

CAL FIRE evaluated projects for their return on investment in terms of pounds of carbon sequestration. National City’s application stood out due to the large number of tree plantings, especially when considered with the City’s disadvantaged status. The grant application illustrated that the city had a strong understanding of the true carbon sequestration and community benefits capable under the plan.

Stephenson said the application leveraged the information from the work Dudek urban foresters are currently doing with City to complete a separately grant-funded Urban Forest Management Plan. “The management plan, expected to be finalized in September 2017, let us pre-plan ways to improve National City’s urban forest, including a plan for planting “carbon hungry trees that can sequester large volumes of carbon,” he said. “We could maximize the number of large tree species because we knew what the available planting areas could support, some had restrictions and would only be planted with small stature tree species, while most areas would support large trees.”

To qualify for grant funding, a planted tree must be able to grow to a height of 25 feet, and be classified as “low” or “moderate” water usage. Dudek used the Urban Forestry Ecosystem Institute’s SelecTree application to identify trees that met these prerequisites and were adapted to the south coast region.

Input from National City Public Works personnel Miguel Diaz and Victor Uribe was a crucial step in vetting the final list of trees prior to grant submission, Stephenson said.

“Too often, plant lists are drawn from an old list, or pulled from a website, with no consideration for real-world performance,” he said. “Miguel and Victor know their ground inside and out, and which trees will and will not thrive in their City. We put together a diverse list of trees that had all the qualities of a tree adapted to the region, and capable of maximizing the benefits of the City’s urban forest.”

One particularly noteworthy tree is the strawberry madrone, an evergreen capable of growing to 35 feet in height with a distinctive smooth trunk and peely bark. The strawberry madrone shares the same genus Arbutus as the Pacific madrones native to California coastal woodlands.. “It’s exciting to see this near-relative of a California native in our urban forests,” Stephenson said. “As a bonus, the strawberry madrone has low root damage potential, meaning sidewalks and curbs are less likely to buckle near this tree as they are near other trees.”

Expanding the urban forest tree canopy in disadvantage communities.

CAL FIRE prioritizes urban forestry project’s that benefit disadvantaged communities, which frequently have less tree canopy coverage and experience increased pollution and health risks. Stephenson said the city could show that CAL FIRE will get a significant “bang for the buck” by increasing the percentage of tree canopy.

Engaging and benefiting the local community.

A strong competitive element was the city’s partnering with Tree San Diego to provide vocational training for residents who can be hired to help with the tree planting program. “This will help develop a trained local workforce, retain most of the grant monies in the community, and help support the local economy.” Stephenson said.

Demonstrating a specific urban forest need.

The City fronts San Diego Bay with two sizable industrial neighbors – the Port of San Diego and the U.S. Navy’s 32nd Street base, home of the Pacific Fleet. In addition, the City includes major freeways with heavy daily traffic emitting large pollution levels. “The application thoroughly discussed how an expanded urban forest could off-set the issues of traffic, noise and pollution coming from its industrial neighbors. Being able to demonstrate a specific, tangible need strengthened the city’s application,” he said.
Although often overlooked, urban forests provide many benefits, most of which go unnoticed. National City recognizes that increasing the urban forest tree population not only results in a greener, more attractive city, but will help improve the City’s livability. CAL FIRE’s continued support of important urban forestry projects should be applauded and recognized.

For more information, contact Scott Stephenson at