By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
Even as Gonzales tries to improve the care of the trees under his supervision, he has no control over what happens to those in city parks, which are cared for by the Department of Parks and Recreation, or to the 33,000 street trees trimmed by the Department of Water and Power, which historically has been more interested in keeping its powerlines clear than in maintaining the health of the trees.
Several other departments, such as Airports and Harbor, maintain city trees on their property. There's a long tradition of non-coordination among these departments. On a trip to the Valley to watch one of his trimming crews, Gonzales seems annoyed to find a DWP crew doing its own trimming just a few blocks away. "There hasn't been a whole lot of working together," he says. "But we're working on it."
The department Gonzales inherited was virtually created by his former boss, Kennedy, who increased the staff by more than a third, started trimming trees on a grid system, launched a (still not completed) program to inventory the trees, introduced green-waste recycling and worked to contain the approximately $2 million a year the city pays in claims, mostly for falling branches and pedestrians tripping over roots. Kennedy's proudest accomplishment, certainly the one he talks about the most, was the increase in Street Trees' staff and equipment. Now a consultant to the city, with an office at the ornate Board of Public Works building on Spring Street, he rattles off the numbers. "When I got there, they had nine aerial towers. When I left, we had 54." He pauses to let the magnitude of the change sink in. "We had eight tractor gondolas. We had eight articulated loaders that would go down the street and pick up the brush. And you just look at all the tools that would make us look like we're a professional organization, not a ragtag organization."
Such an approach may have been effective, even necessary, in its time. But today, tree activists consider Kennedy's methods pass√©, and in some cases detrimental. They scoff at terminology such as "tree surgeon," which was long ago discredited by Alex Shigo and others. They point out that, until a few years ago, there were no native trees on Street Trees' recommended planting list, and that the department's grid schedule means that all trees in a given area are subjected to trimming whether they need it or not. They even complain that when they began pressuring the city to hire an urban forester separate from the Street Trees division, Kennedy and Gonzales adopted the title as their own, without the credentials to back it up; though Gonzales is officially the Street Trees superintendent, his business card reads "Chief Forester."
Gonzales and Kennedy are just as frustrated with the activists. Kennedy says that when the CFAC was created, he thought it would act as a sort of public-relations arm of Street Trees, spreading the good word about what his department was doing. When they started criticizing, he lost interest. And Gonzales says he has spent hundreds of hours trying to work with the activists, with little to show for the effort. "We would ask them to help us with something and they'd be very enthusiastic, and then, 15 minutes later, they'd be enthusiastic about something else. They don't work together to make things happen," he says.
It's a criticism that might apply to Go nzales himself. A chief tenet of modern urban forestry is "the right tree in the right place." If people plant the proper trees, many later problems, from bad pruning to sick trees, can be avoided. To that end, Gonzales has put together a list of 150 trees to help residents decide what to plant. But the list, full of abbreviations and codes, seems designed more for someone who already knows a lot about trees than for the average user. The first entry: "1. Acacia baileyana/Bailey acacia. T [Type]: E [Evergreen]; H [Height]: 20-40; CS [Crown Spread]: 20-40; S [Spacing]: 30-35 . . . "
There are two street-tree guides for Southern California that are more accessible: Street Trees Recommended for Southern California, put out by an organization in Anaheim called Street Tree Seminar, is a 190-page spiral-bound book that devotes two pages per tree, including color photos and descriptions of size and site suitability. Smart Planting for the New Urban Forest, put together by the DWP and the nonprofit group TreePeople, categorizes trees by size and includes practical information such as how much water the tree needs. Neither of these books is mentioned to people seeking planting permits from Street Trees.
One morning, during an interview in his downtown office, Gonzales gets up from his desk and pulls a binder from a large polished wood cabinet behind him. He points to page after page of carefully laid out snapshots of trees. "These are all photographs that I took," he says. "I did this all on Saturdays and Sundays. I used to drive my wife crazy." The idea, he explains, was to turn this labor of love into a comprehensive tree guide available to all L.A. residents.
Problem is, Gonzales never finished the guide. This is the only copy, and here it sits, incomplete. Why not hand out one of the existing guides until his is finished? Gonzales straightens up, hesitates. It appears this thought has never occurred to him. At this moment, his struggle becomes clear. Gonzales loves the trees, but as a bureaucrat he spends much of his time defending them and justifying their needs to other city bureaucrats. "It's difficult for me to be the advocate, because everybody says, 'You're just looking out for yourself,'" he says, finally. "I'm out here trying to get the work done, and it's difficult for me to develop a plan."