Caltrans Tree Replacement Program

State Highway Entrance to Burlingame (El Camino Real at Burlingame Ave.), ca. 1921

Caltrans, the agency responsible for the state highways, is tasked with maintenance of El Camino Real. Over the years, the agency has come up against the will of the Burlingame citizenry to protect the historic trees on this highway despite the traffic and safety hazards that the trees may pose. According to some news sources, a growing threat of lawsuits has been cited as driving Caltrans’ efforts to remove the large eucalyptus trees.

Although Burlingame citizens prize these trees for their historic nature, arborists for Caltrans have said that the age of the eucalyptus is precisely what poses a problem: In Australia, the trees can live more than 200 years in ideal conditions. However, the environment of El Camino Real is less than ideal, with its paving over roots, poor drainage, and compacted soil.

In 1997, Caltrans planned to cut down 115 trees along the highway for safety reasons or at the request of property owners. By 1999, the heritage trees were determined to be protected under the California Environmental Quality Act. A spirit of cooperation rather than confrontation with Burlingame led to a compromise. Caltrans has committed to developing a plan for maintaining the trees along this historic corridor, including analysis of current trees and ongoing replacement of trees that require removal due to safety concerns.

In making choices about tree maintenance or removal, Caltrans follows the Secretary of Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. These guidelines acknowledge the need to alter or add to a cultural landscape to meet continuing or new uses.

The City of Burlingame and Caltrans periodically inspect the health of tree rows. Removal of any historic tree is based on public safety, and the health of the tree. Burlingame ismade aware of all trees proposed for removal, and the State Historic Preservation Office is notified of any significant changes. Since 2006, in keeping with John McLaren’s original design intent, Caltrans has been replacing unhealthy or otherwise hazardous eucalyptus with disease-resistant elms, where possible.

“Frontier” (Ulmus parvifolia) and “Accolade” (Ulmus accolade) are the varieties currently used by Caltrans as replacement because these hybrids possess similar attributes of the American and European elms originally planted by McLaren.