By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Economics also plays a role. In Southern California, cheap gardeners are a given -- laborers with no formal training mow lawns, clean up dead leaves and take care of the trees, in most cases by topping them. Topping is fast and, in the short run, cheap. It costs about $60 to $100 to top a mature tree, and the job, performed entirely with a chain saw, can be completed in an hour. Proper pruning, which often requires a specially schooled trimmer to climb into the tree, can run $300 to $1,000 or more, and can take up to a day, though that tree will not have to be trimmed as frequently as a topped tree. In the long run the cost will more than even out, but to the uninformed consumer, the difference may not be worth the extra immediate cost.
The city has done next to nothing to shake the general malaise. Committees have been formed, reports have been made and hearings and meetings held, but tree boosters have made little progress. A full quarter of the spots designated for street trees stand empty. In a rare triumph, the CFAC several years ago argued that trees actually increase in value as they age, and won a long, hard battle to get trees included in the city's general plan as part of the urban infrastructure, along with light posts and telephone lines.
When it comes down to it, though, both Romano and Blackstone acknowledge that they and the rest of the tree activists have failed to convince the powers that be of the merit of their crusade. "They just don't get it," Romano says. "They say, 'The trees will grow no matter what, so why should we care?'"
Then again, Blackstone believes, the CFAC is disorganized, unprofessional and in over its head -- not surprising, since it's made up entirely of volunteers who squeeze the meetings into already busy lives. The committee is supposed to have 16 members, one from each council district and one at large. But in any given month, they're lucky if even eight show up. In the six years since the group came into existence, it has made just two recommendations to the City Council. "We don't have our shit together," Blackstone admits. "I keep holding out hope. It's the only thing we have."
At an Environmental Quality Subcommittee meeting in March, Romano, Blackstone and several other CFAC members made their case before Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas. They showed Ridley-Thomas, who chairs the subcommittee, photos of severed trees. They cited examples of the value of trees in the urban environment. They urged him to push for the audit and the hiring of an urban forester. "We cannot let another year escape us," Romano declared. "Every leaf counts," Blackstone chirped.
Ridley-Thomas, who had assumed the subcommittee chairmanship last fall and had not been involved in the previous round of talks with the activists, was underwhelmed. "To what extent, frankly, is this a priority for the √Ę mayor and the City Council?" he asked before adjourning the meeting. "That is an inescapable question."
No shade tree? Blame not the sun, but yourself.
AMONG THE POSTED JOB QUALIFICATIONS for L.A. street-tree superintendent are knowledge of tree maintenance and landscape architecture, two years' experience as a tree surgeon supervisor, a valid California driver's license, good speaking and hearing ability, good eyesight and the strength to lift more than 15 pounds. Though George Gonzales easily met those requirements when he was promoted to the job in 1998, he knew they didn't come close to preparing him for his impossible task.
Gonzales, who has large green eyes, a gruff voice, and the solid build and mustache of a lumberjack, was the handpicked successor of Bob Kennedy, who held the post for the previous 17 years. A longtime L.A. resident, Gonzales ran his own landscaping business before hiring on as a tree surgeon with the city. As its name suggests, the Street Trees division of the Department of Public Works is responsible for the trees on city streets. Most have been damaged, if not by his own department -- which routinely directed its trimmers to top as recently as 1991 -- then by private contractors, business owners and residents. He has no budget for tree watering or planting.
In the early 1990s, when the city budget was in trouble, Street Trees was one of the first departments to fall under the axe. In the 1989-90 fiscal year, it trimmed almost 120,000 trees; three years later, it was trimming just 20,000. Even now, when trimming is back on track, there is little money to spend on proactive projects that could greatly improve the quality of tree care. The pay is so low for tree surgeons -- between $800 and $1,200 a month for dirty, dangerous work -- that the Street Trees division has a hard time keeping anyone for more than a year or two.
Few, if any, of the trimmers have been certified as arborists by the International Society of Arboriculture. The city does not pay for its tree surgeons to take classes to become certified, nor do those who are certified get paid more. "We've tried to talk about this with the City Council and the mayor," Gonzales says. "But as soon as you start putting dollars to it, they don't want to hear about it anymore."
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