A worker with West Coast Arborists trims trees on Fifth Street last year. (Photo by Daniel Archuleta)

A worker with West Coast Arborists trims trees on Fifth Street last year. (Photo by Daniel Archuleta)

MAIN LIBRARY — Trees throughout Santa Monica may be in bad shape because of faulty roots and other ailments, a situation that could have been prevented by proper selection and planting procedures, according to a report.

HortScience, a firm that consults on urban forests, examined 54 trees in various portions of the city and found that more than half of those selected were in either “poor” or “fair” condition.

In some instances, roots showed kinks, which prevent nutrients and other materials from getting to the tree. More severe problems occurred when trees spent too long in their pots before being planted, causing a phenomenon called root “circling” or “girdling,” which can cut years off a tree’s lifespan.

That puts West Coast Arborists, a company that selects and plants trees in Santa Monica, firmly in the hot seat, as well as a handful of city officials, several of whom have since retired, who were responsible for monitoring the condition of trees planted in the city.

Urban Forest Task Force members drilled into company representatives at a meeting Wednesday night, noting that more than 80 trees in one beach parking lot alone had died under their watch.

“What assurances do we have that the problems we have found so far won’t continue, and who’s going to ensure that these best practices will be followed?” asked task force member John C. Smith.

Company representatives committed to replacing the Torrey pines in the beach parking lot, as well as providing a list of trees that had been replaced multiple times in the last five years.

They will also turn control of a database documenting the work done on trees to City Hall.

This comes after other trees examined by HortScience and Robin Beaudry, the city arborist, showed signs of roots growing in circles around the base of the tree, sometimes cutting into the trunk itself.

Called circling and girdling respectively, the conditions can often be discovered early on in the tree’s life, often before they leave the nursery from which they were purchased, said Nick Kuhn, president of the Society for Municipal Arborists, a group of municipal tree managers who work with community forests.

Nurseries are under pressure to grow trees quickly, and often they come out with bad quality plants, Kuhn said.

“This is a concern nationwide, probably worldwide,” Kuhn said. “Trees grown in the nursery are a product. They’re growing them as fast as they can.”

The HortScience report was ordered by former Community Forest Supervisor Randy Little in early February when evidence emerged suggesting that some of the 35,000 trees in Santa Monica’s urban forest had been either improperly planted or were unhealthy specimens from the start.

In a letter sent to the District Attorney’s Office Monday, Beaudry alleged that the bad practices were part of a scheme by West Coast Arborists to make more money by planting and subsequently replacing defective trees. He went on to say that former City Forester Walt Warriner approved invoices by West Coast Arborists for hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of work that has been unaccounted for.

A subsequent investigation by Management Partners, a consultant, found no wrongdoing, just bad accounting practices, although the review did not rise to the level of a forensic audit, said City Attorney Marsha Moutrie. The consultant recommended city officials do a comprehensive review of all invoices from West Coast Arborists to see if City Hall was overcharged.

Beaudry’s concerns arose from his own inspections of trees, which began after he was hired in October 2012. He uncovered and photographed the root systems of newly planted trees that he says show severe signs of root girdling.

In extreme cases, girdling can bite so far into the tree that it snaps at the base. It can happen when plants have been in small containers for too long, causing their roots to warp, or when the tree is planted too deeply into the soil, according to a document posted by city officials to the Urban Forest Task Force website.

The HortScience report identified other problems with care for the trees that did not relate to their time at the nursery, including over-watering and imperfect soil conditions.

“This was a colossal disregard for contract specification and the Urban Forest Master Plan,” Beaudry said.

The report also states that the root defects were well within the range that are often found with nursery-grown stock.

The Urban Forest Master Plan, adopted by the City Council in December 2011, lays out specific standards for tree selection and care, including requirements that trees be rejected if the tree is “root bound, shows evidence of girdling or kinking roots, or has roots protruding above the soil.”

The trees were usually purchased and planted by West Coast Arborists, although other companies have also taken part, said Karen Ginsberg, director of Community and Cultural Services, the department that housed the Public Landscape Division that oversaw the urban forest.

For certain projects in the city that involve trees, like Tongva Park across from City Hall, private parties hire their own subcontractors to bring in trees, Ginsberg said.

West Coast Arborist employee Andy Trotter told task force members that his company would work with City Hall to improve the quality of trees that came into the city, but that some of City Hall’s demands on his company made it difficult to acquire good trees.

For instance, the Urban Forest Master Plan dictates that certain kinds of trees be planted on various streets. The original goal was to increase the diversity of trees in the urban forest, in part to ensure that if one pest or disease found its way into the city, it could not wipe out a large percentage of the trees.

Some of those trees are hard to find, Trotter said.

The Torrey pines that died near the beach, for instance, were difficult to locate.

“Let’s pick species that are commonly available, where nurseries are growing them, and have staff inspect the trees,” Trotter said.

Many task force members seemed nervous that things will get worse before they get better.

“The pines,” said task force member Grace Phillips, “were the canary in the coal mine.”

 

ashley@smdp.com