By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
of medics examining bodies on a battlefield. Blackstone spots a silver maple and groans. "This is all topped," she says. "These trees are small, sick, puny. They didn't need to trim them at all."
"It's so mechanized," says Romano. "I've seen them prune saplings, I've seen them prune dead trees, for no reason, except to get their 60 bucks, or whatever it is they get per tree." She sniffs. "These are taxpayer dollars being squandered."
Blackstone turns her attention to a 40-foot liquidambar, and her shoulders slump. "This tree is covered with bad cuts," she says, her voice rising. "It's yucky, ghastly, awful. They've tipped every single branch."
"We need to get down to the guy with the chain saw," Romano says, repeating, for the hundredth time, what she and Blackstone already know. "They need to be educated about this. They're destroying the trees, but they don't even know what they're doing, and it's not their fault."
Blackstone and Romano climb back into the van and resume their search. A few blocks away they follow a faint buzz of chain saws to the trimming crew. Two cherry pickers emblazoned with the logo for West Coast Arborists, a city-approved contractor based in Anaheim, hoist trimmers into a row of tall, lush liquidambars. The grassy smell of fresh-cut greenery -- of summer itself -- rises from the massive branches as they crash to the street. Blackstone and Romano immediately decide they don't like what they see. They find the supervisor, Jim Goss, a large, fair-skinned man in a hard hat.
They tell him he's trimming too much, that he shouldn't be trimming in the summer, which stimulates more bad growth, and that his workers should be climbing through the interior of the trees so they can see the tree structure and cut precisely, rather than chainsawing blindly from buckets. They ask him if he's following the standards set by the International Society of Arboriculture and adopted by the city.
Goss, a certified arborist, shrugs. "You've got your guidelines, but you have to use common sense with your guidelines," he says evenly. "That's why they're called guidelines. These trees are huge. If I don't reduce them they're going to be a problem. Sure, you're gonna load 'em down and cover 'em with sucker growth, but if you reduce the size of the tree it catches less wind, so it's less liable to break." He stops for a moment. Then adds, "Most trees are not pruned often enough."
As Goss turns to go back to work, Romano asks one final question. "Do you ever skip trees that don't need to be pruned?"
Goss exhales loudly. "Every tree needs something."
As he climbs into his truck and drives off, Blackstone and Romano discuss what to do next. These aren't, after all, old-growth redwoods, and they aren't about to chain themselves to the trunks in protest. Still, both are visibly upset. "I just feel like crying," Blackstone says. "You think you're making progress, and then you see something like this. Are things ever going to change?"
TWO YEARS AGO, ROMANO WROTE A LETTER TO COUNCILwoman Ruth Galanter outlining what she thought were outrageous examples of tree abuse at the hands of city crews and asking for a moratorium on trimming until the problems were addressed. It took her six months to work up the nerve to write the letter. Little did she know that that was the easy part. "I thought it was so clear that everybody would agree," she says, shaking her head at her own naivet√©. "At the very least I thought the city would see that all this bad tree care was opening them up to some serious liability, because poorly maintained trees are the ones that lose limbs and hurt people. But all it did was open a process." Which meant, as Romano soon discovered, endless meetings and plenty of promises, but no meaningful action.
Since 1993, a small group of tree activists has gathered monthly as the Community Forestry Advisory Committee (CFAC) to plot the rescue of the urban forest. In recent years, Blackstone and Romano have been part of that effort, pressing for an audit of all tree work done by every city department, and for the creation of a Department of Urban Forestry headed by someone with an advanced forestry degree. They envision a city loaded with millions of gorgeous, leafy trees, all maintained by well-trained crews, with nary a bad cut in sight. "Our strategy is to start with the street trees, which are the most visible,
and which are the responsibility of the entire community," Blackstone says. "People would see how great these trees look, which would have a ripple effect, and everyone would take better care of their own trees."
Blackstone has spent a lot of time trying to figure out why people don't seem concerned about trees. The pervasiveness of air conditioning and vehicular travel have contributed to the devaluation of cooling shade, one of the most obvious benefits of trees. And L.A.'s unparalleled aboricultural diversity -- the fact that no single type of tree makes up more than 5 percent of the overall street-tree population -- may be furthering the disconnect. (How many types of trees can you point to by name?)