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Take Five: Meet Kevin Pekar, Newport Beach Parks and Trees Superintendent

By AMY SENK

Newport Beach – a city known for its harbor and beaches – also manages an urban forest of about 35,000 trees. Kevin Pekar, currently the Parks and Trees Superintendent, has worked for the City since 2002. He is in charge of overseeing City staff and landscape contracts, monitoring City trees for trimming or disease and pest infestations, and working to maintain and beautify city medians, roadsides and park areas. I caught up with him to learn more.

Take Five Kevin Pekar and Sequoia

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Photo by Kevin Pekar

Kevin Pekar standing in front of a Giant Sequoia at Mariposa Grove, located in the southernmost part of Yosemite National Park

Q: You wrote an article for the Corona del Mar Residents Association newsletter recently that talked about Tulip scale infestations in Magnolia trees in the city. Can you tell me more about this?

A: Unfortunately, the Tuliptree scale – Toumeyella liriodendra – is running rampant in Southern California. It is an insect that has been in California since the early 80s but did not appear in Newport Beach until more recently, around 2015. It attacks most species of Magnolia, including the Tuliptree, which is in the Magnolia family. The insect attaches itself to the branches and stems of Magnolia trees, penetrating the Xylem layer and depriving the tree of vital nutrients. The unfortunate consequence, and a tell-tale sign of infestation, is a sticky waste material called honeydew that quickly turns into a black, sooty mold. As part of our Integrated Pest Management Program, the City has used a variety of biological methods to control the scale, including the use of predatory beetles and lacewings that feed on the scale at different stages of its life cycle. However, the Tuliptree scale is very persistent due to its hard, shell-like exoskeleton. As a result, insecticides – both foliar sprays and systemic bark and root injections – are the primary method of control. So far, Newport Beach has fared better than many other cities, thanks in part to an aggressive treatment and monitoring program. The City has lost about 50 trees of an inventory of close to 2,000 Magnolias. Although we have not stopped planting Magnolias completely, we discourage residents from selecting it as a replacement street tree option, especially in hot zones like Corona del Mar.

Take Five Kevin Pekar Tuliptree scale bark

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Courtesy of City of Newport Beach

Tuliptree scale on a Magnolia tree’s bark

Q: Are there any other tree diseases or concerns going on these days in Newport?

A: Newport Beach has an inventory of approximately 35,000 trees. The predominant species is the Mexican Fan Palm, with about 3,000 specimens. Until recently, the Mexican Fan Palm was considered to be the most durable species of palm tree due to its hardiness. However, the University of California recently alerted local municipalities to a fungal disease called Fusarium that affects the Mexican Fan Palm and Queen Palm. It is similar to the deadly Fusarium disease that affects Canary Island Date Palms, most notably those on Marguerite Avenue in Corona del Mar. The disease can be identified by one-side necrosis, or dieback, on the frond, with the other side remaining green until eventual decline. Another insect to be on the lookout for is one that attacks the official tree of Newport Beach, the Coral Tree. This insect is called Erythrina Stem Borer, and the most consistent sign of infestation is dieback starting on the tips of the coral tree branches, which gives the appearance of a tree that was just pruned. As part of a free service for our residents, the city is continuously looking for opportunities to increase the number of street trees by planting new trees in vacant parkways. We encourage property owners to choose from a long list of size-appropriate, city-approved options and contact us to arrange for a free tree planting. A list of these options can be found here.

Q: How does the City decide which trees need to be removed and replaced? 

A: The City has adopted a council policy that outlines the official procedure for deciding tree removals. The policy includes criteria for tree removals, such as dead or dying trees and hazardous trees as determined by certified arborists. Criteria can also include instances of significant or repeated sidewalk or street damage from City tree roots or proven and repeated property damage such as sewer obstructions from city tree roots. In other instances, trees can be removed as part of city-approved projects such as the current redevelopment project at Grant Howald Park. When trees do not fall into one of these categories, such as view obstruction or other issues, residents can apply for what is called reforestation. Reforestation is a mechanism where residents can pay for removal and replacement of trees through a petition and review process with our Parks, Beaches and Recreation Commission for approval. 

Take Five Kevin Pekar Tuliptree scale leaves

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Courtesy of City of Newport Beach

This Magnolia tree’s leaves are diseased with Tuliptree scale

Q: What’s a typical day for a city arborist?

A: Much of staff’s time is spent on tree inspections to address requests for tree trimming and tree removals, and to answer questions from residents about tree species, the city’s tree policies and more. We closely oversee the work of city contractors to ensure that tree trimming work conforms to the city’s specifications. We review proposed landscaping plans that are part of the construction plans for upcoming construction projects. We also review and interpret various local, county and state policies that impact the urban forest. Oftentimes our day may include various forms of community outreach to communicate the benefits of trees in the landscape and recruiting residents to volunteer their parkway to plant new city trees. Because trees are organic and evolving, arborists are dedicated to continuing education centered around new technologies and methods to better measure and track the city’s tree inventory, prevent issues, and better maintain the city’s urban forest.

Q: Do you have a favorite tree in Newport Beach or a favorite kind of tree anywhere in the world?

A: The Moreton Bay Fig trees in Eastbluff Park are my favorite trees in Newport Beach; they are unique, and you don’t see a lot of other large, Moreton Bay Fig trees in our area. My favorites anywhere are the largest trees in the world, the Giant Sequoias in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, especially the Mariposa Grove. It’s a nostalgic place for me because my family went there every year when I was growing up, and I later worked there as a college intern. 

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Amy Senk is a longtime resident of Corona del Mar and a regular contributor to Stu News Newport.