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
Even if I were certain the world would end tomorrow, I would plant a tree this very day.
HIGH ABOVE THE CITY, ON 44 ACRES OF PRIME REDWOOD-shaded real estate at the intersection of Mulholland Drive and Coldwater Canyon, sits the home of Tree- People, one of the country's premier tree-planting groups. Under the guidance of founder Andy Lipkis, a 45-year-old visionary with a graying goatee and a wall full of laudatory plaques, the group has prompted dozens of environmental and civic improvements, often taking the lead on projects no one else would touch.
It was TreePeople, in preparation for the 1984 Olympics and in the face of overwhelming skepticism, that led the biggest tree-planting drive in L.A. history, a massive three-year effort that involved a major corporate sponsor and thousands of volunteers planting 1 million trees. Their success made L.A. look good and cost the city nothing, endearing Lipkis forever to bureaucrats and politicians alike. "Andy is a genius," Gonzales says. "He sees ways to fix problems, and he fixes them."
The group helped design L.A.'s curbside recycling program, and created a "citizen forester" training program to teach people how to mobilize their own communities to plant and tend their trees. In 1990 Lipkis and his wife, Katie, wrote the book The Simple Act of Planting a Tree: A Citizen Forester's Guide to Healing Your Neighborhood. They also helped mastermind Cool Schools, a DWP-headed tree-planting program at L.A. public schools that is the largest landscaping effort in city history. If any one group can claim primary credit for what tree awareness exists in Los Angeles, TreePeople is it.
Yet after 30 years as a tree crusader, Lipkis surveys his past efforts with a cold eye. The million-tree planting, he says, was not all it was cracked up to be. "It was about getting as many trees in the ground as possible and solving the problem that way," he says. "That didn't work, because there was no follow-up care, and young trees need a lot of attention in order to survive. So there was this incredible amount of energy and money and effort spent on getting the trees planted, and then it would all go to hell."
The citizen-forester program, while near and dear to Lipkis' heart, is slow going. In 1999, citizen foresters planted just 320 large trees on L.A.'s streets, down from a high in 1993 of 1,057. This, of course, doesn't include the thousands of seedlings planted by TreePeople volunteers each year in the mountains around L.A., or the street trees planted by untrained volunteers. But it is the citizen-forester program that epitomizes TreePeople's mission: to put the long-term responsibility for maintaining trees on the individuals in each community. "The problem is how to pull together neighborhoods, pursue money, get them through the bureaucracy -- this is what our training program does," Lipkis says. "The downside, which is very hard for us -- and we haven't cracked this yet -- is that people have to work, and they don't want to."
In the early 1990s, Lipkis found himself getting discouraged by the slow pace of change, and by the lack of coordination and the infighting he encountered working with the city and other activists. He needed something that would pull it all together. He retreated to his mountaintop park to figure out what.
The answer came with the Rodney King riots. Momentarily freed from the rules that reassure and confine, Lipkis saw his next step. He started looking at trees as nothing short of the linchpin in a complete makeover of the urban infrastructure, encompassing flood control, water, sanitation and energy. "I began to believe we could retrofit L.A. to be a working urban forest," he says. "Everything is connected, and trees are the way in."
Lipkis stands in his office, located in a trailer in the TreePeople parking lot, and faces a white vinyl drawing board, purple marker in hand. "History," he writes in a large, loopy scrawl. Then, below it, "A. Why things don't work," followed by "B. What's been done" and finally "C. Result -- TREES."
TREES, the project Lipkis has been working on for the past eight years, stands for Transagency Resources for Environmental and Economic Sustainability. The heart of it is a cost-benefit analysis, designed by an engineer from Computer Systems, that will allow anyone -- city planners, √Ę council members, developers -- to punch in a specific geographic region, down to a census block, and find out dollar for dollar just what the economic impact would be of tearing out concrete and asphalt and replacing it with strategically placed trees, mulch, gravel, water filters and water-storage areas, seemingly simple steps that would go a long way in countering some of L.A.'s worst environmental problems.
It's well-known, he explains, that L.A. is environmentally under the gun. The city, and Southern California as a whole, lag woefully behind in meeting state and federal mandates for finding alternative sources of clean water, and for cleaning up smog and storm-water runoff. The statewide bill for runoff cleanup alone could reach $14 billion, and L.A. has done the least to control runoff of any urban area nationwide.
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