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
Though their methods may differ from Lipkis', Blackstone and Romano and even Gonzales agree with his assessment. They believe that one way or another, their cause is bound to come to the fore, if not through raised consciousness, then out of necessity. As Gonzales is fond of pointing out, before L.A. became L.A., the region was dominated by expanses of grassy savannas punctuated by very few trees. "We've created the need for the trees," he says. "Now we have to meet that need."
A Modest Proposal
I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree.
Indeed, unless the billboards fall
I'll never see a tree at all.
BEFORE THE TOPPING OF TREES CAN BE halted, before there can be plantings on every block and well-cared-for trees throughout the city, there must be a general shift in the way we think about trees. Such a shift, the kind that has to do with a lifestyle change for a large chunk of the population, is difficult but not impossible. In recent memory it's been done, after all, with smoking, seatbelts and infant car seats.
The case that seems most relevant here is littering. No one dies from littering, and no one dies when trees are maltreated, but the long-term effects of both are dramatic.
Until the 1970s, littering was an ugly but generally accepted reality. So much so that when New Yorkerwriter John McPhee rafted down the Colorado River with environmental icon David Brower in 1969, he casually tossed the tab of his beer can -- remember those? -- into the water. And he was surprised when his companions scolded him.
What, then, made us change our attitude about littering? There are many factors, but the biggest and most important, without which the change almost certainly would not have occurred, was a public-service advertising campaign that featured Iron Eyes Cody, an actor who came to be known as the Crying Indian. In a television spot that premiered on the first Earth Day in 1971, Cody, wrapped in a fringed leather jacket, with a feather in his braided hair, sheds a tear as he watches a bag of trash being tossed out a car window. The ad was named one of the 50 greatest TV commercials of all time by TV Guideand Entertainment Weekly, and was commemorated on a postage stamp in 1982. Last year, nearly three decades after the original spot ran, it was voted one of the two best commercials of the century in an America Online millennium poll. Now anti-littering efforts, from Adopt-a-Highway to beach cleanups to Boy Scout projects, are an essential part of our environmental awareness.
The Crying Indian campaign, however, was not put together by environmentalists. It was the work of a small nonprofit called Keep America Beautiful, whose board was made up almost entirely of executives from the American Can Company, the Glass Container Manufacturing Institute, the U.S. Brewer's Association and the Fiber Box Association, among other companies motivated by a desire to avoid a proposed litter tax.
A similar campaign could be put together for the urban forest, with both backing and advertising from a traditional adversary: the billboard companies. Just as packaging is a source of litter, so are billboard companies responsible for a share of bad tree practices. When trees block billboards, the companies typically hire trimmers to clear the way, paying little attention to the effect on the trees.
Though billboard companies are not the only culprits when it comes to bad tree trimming, they almost certainly have the deepest pockets. In the past 10 years, outdoor-advertising revenue has grown between 5 percent and 10 percent per year, and because of its mild climate and large, diverse, mobile population, Los Angeles is considered the nation's top billboard market. Instead of battling it out over big trees blocking billboards, the city could create a monitoring system to ensure that trees in front of billboards are trimmed properly. In cases where trees have already been so damaged that they will never recover, or are too big to be trimmed and still afford a view of the billboards, the city could allow some tree removal, on the condition that the billboard companies plant and maintain a number of new, large street trees for every tree removed. Billboards throughout the city could feature public-service ads bearing the anti-topping "Don't take it off" message.
Scott Christensen has worked in the L.A. real estate division of Outdoor Infinity, one of the nation's largest billboard companies, for 14 years. He finds the notion of sponsoring the urban forest "intriguing" and says that his company is "interested." But he is wary of championing the trees because of the intensely antagonistic relationship between his company and urban tree activists, an antagonism, he acknowledges, that is to some degree merited. "It's hard, when you have subcontractors who work for you, to know what they're doing," he says. "We'll have a client, say Coke, call and say, 'There's a little tree growing up into our sign. Can you have it trimmed?' If we send somebody out to do the job, and then there's a complaint, all of a sudden there'd be a newspaper article criticizing us because on the one hand we're in the position of supporting the trees, but then we're doing something wrong to the trees. We're such a medium out there to be attacked."
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