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.

By , Contributor

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    For almost 30 years, Charlie Starbuck has volunteered to plant trees all over San Francisco,
    one street at a time, as a member of the nonprofit group Friends of the Urban Forest.
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Charlie Starbuck has them in just about every part of this city. Walk a block or two in virtually any neighborhood, from the concrete canyons of the financial district to the windblown avenues of the Outer Sunset and Mr. Starbuck's fingerprints are there.

It might be a Brisbane box, a bronze loquat, a primrose, or a purple leaf plum. Whatever the species of tree, chances are excellent that Starbuck helped plant it.

Not as in ordered the tree or arranged for the planting. But as in actually put his fingers in the dirt and planted it.

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A soft-spoken gentleman fond of berets, Starbuck has volunteered for a citywide tree-planting program since 1981, nearly without interruption. That's almost 30 years of weekly plantings, without pay, come rain or shine.

"For Charlie to be that consistent..." says Doug Wildman, program director of San Francisco's Friends of the Urban Forest (FUF), his voice trailing off as he searches for the right superlative. "Well, he's our rock." FUF (www.fuf.net) is the nonprofit group for which Starbuck has volunteered all these years.

On a recent dewy winter morning, neighbors gather in front of a row of San Francisco homes. Staff members from FUF have already been busy positioning trees in 15-gallon pots in front of the homes, whose owners had signed up for the subsidized $75-per-tree planting.

This is a relatively small project – about 15 trees. Water and cable lines had been identified so they wouldn't be mistakenly cut. All that is left to do is dig the holes, plant the trees, and stake them.

Neighbors and volunteers had been asked to meet at 9 a.m. Like clockwork, a few minutes before 9, up the block chugs Starbuck, toting his little black satchel of tools, his clippers in a holster hanging from his belt. He's come from across town, courtesy of a city bus. Since moving to the city, he's never owned a car.

For all its charm, San Francisco is not particularly leafy. A 2006 study by the US Forest Service found that about 12 percent of the city is covered by trees. In contrast, trees cover nearly 29 percent of Washington D.C., 22 percent of Boston, and 21 percent of New York.

Sandy soil, salty air, lots of wind, and narrow streets are common explanations for San Francisco's low tree count.

For nearly three decades, Starbuck has been on a mission to change that.

The average tree planting is 30 trees per outing, though 60- and even 90-tree plantings occur from time to time. Starbuck acts as a guide and teacher to the home-owners and volunteers. As he works, he likes to talk about – what else, trees.

"My current favorite is the strawberry tree," he offers. Tree experts here are constantly on the look out for species that can handle the local climate. The strawberry tree, with its mock red fruit that hangs in draping clusters, is in high demand. "They're hard to find right now because of the popularity," says FUF planting manager Heidi Lakics.

Care is relatively simple. Most of San Francisco has sandy soil, so it is almost impossible to overwater the trees, Starbuck says. Just before a sapling goes in the ground, Starbuck uses a box cutter to make vertical slices down each side of the root ball so the roots don't continue to grow in a circular fashion, as they do in their container.

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.

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.

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