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Difference Maker

One man's volunteer effort to plant trees in San Francisco

As a volunteer, Charlie Starbuck has helped to plant trees by the thousands on the streets of San Francisco, a city long on charm but short on leafy green trees.

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He's also precise about staking the tree. Three poles are driven in, then soft cloth straps are attached to each pole so that the tree can sway a bit. The ability to sway actually strengthens the trunk, like "flexing a muscle," he says.

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Starbuck was born in Philadelphia. After earning a law degree, he came to San Francisco in the 1960s to visit. Like many who arrived in the '60s, he never left.

The young lawyer became more interested in neighborhood affairs than his legal career. He practiced tax law to make ends meet. In the early '70s, he became involved in efforts to limit the growth of high-rise buildings in the city center, which ultimately failed.

The San Francisco mayor at the time, George Moscone, appointed Starbuck to the city planning commission, where he served from 1976-81.

Over time, Starbuck began to notice his adopted city's dearth of trees. Looking out from his modest one-bedroom apartment with a spectacular second-story view of the Golden Gate Bridge, it is easy to see what he means. The sight of treetops is still relatively rare.

Through a friend of a friend, Starbuck heard about FUF, which opened its doors in 1981. He started volunteering.

"It was a big turn on," he says of FUF. "It's easy to be obsessed with it because of the whole transformation that occurs. You change so much [by planting trees] in one morning. It's an emotional high for me."

Michael Sullivan understands the lure of trees – and of volunteering. He wrote the 2004 book "Trees of San Francisco," regarded as an authoritative resource on the city's trees and their history. Mr. Sullivan also was a volunteer tree planter for many years.

"He's done it in such a modest way," Sullivan says of Starbuck. "Week after week. He's the Lou Gehrig of tree planting."

Last year, FUF says, more than 350 volunteers planted and cared for trees, contributing about 5,000 hours of labor.

These volunteers are not the homeowners who receive the trees, just citizens who donate time for the greater good. Homeowners do get involved in the planting, which also serves as a way for neighbors to get to know one another.

While the city may still be short on trees, nearly 1,000 new trees took root here last year thanks to FUF. It receives nearly half of its funds from the federal government and most of the rest from state and local governments, individuals, corporations, and foundations.

On a walk through his own Pacific Heights neighborhood, Starbuck tells a tree story for almost every block. His destination is a corner of Nob Hill, across the street from the landmark Mark Hopkins Hotel.

"All they used to look at was concrete and parked cars," Starbuck explains, referring to the row of town homes that face the hotel's west flank. "But now," he says with pride, gesturing to the 10 magnolia trees that run the full block, "they are going to see some green."

Starbuck was part of a team that planted those magnolias recently.

"It's the before and after," Starbuck says. "That's what it's about for me."

See also: "What is the value of a tree?" Planting trees in US cities.

For more stories about people making a difference, go here.