Is Antonio Villaraigosa's One Million Trees Legacy an Official Bust?

Update and correction: An upset mayoral aide says they've achieved a lot and were more than willing to talk. See next page.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraiogosa has a legacy problem.

Leaving office on June 30 after eight years at the helm, Villaraigosa's highly publicized Million Trees L.A. initiative is something of a bust, with the city nowhere near his 2006 promise of planting one million trees over several years.

A whole bunch of powerful folks are quietly defensive about the embarrassing failure. The Mayor's Office refuses to talk with L.A. Weekly about it, and same goes for Million Trees L.A. executive director Lisa Sarno. TreePeople founder Andy Lipkis is staying mum, too ... hmmm.

In 2006, Villaraigosa kicked off with much hoopla his Million Trees L.A. initiative, setting up a fancy web site and securing at one point or another corporate sponsors such as Ralphs supermarkets, Korean Air, and Southwest Airlines.

Andy Lipkis' TreePeople, the Koreatown Youth & Community Center, and the L.A. Conservation Corps were among the "tree planting partners."

A year later, in 2007, the million trees program was starting to come under media scrutiny since nothing seemed to be happening, although, as L.A. Times' David Zahniser pointed out, Villaraigosa "trumpeted his Million Trees L.A. initiative as a cornerstone of his environmental agenda, bringing it up before audiences as far away as London and Hong Kong."

Today, the Million Trees L.A. web site still doesn't have an official count of how many trees have been planted in the past seven years -- or it's extremely hard to find.

It's totally unlike New York City's million trees program, which shows on its homepage exactly how many trees have been planted -- over 660,000.

In a KPCC post on Monday that heralded Villaraigosa as "one of the 'greenest' American mayors in recent times," environmental reporter Molly Peterson wrote that L.A. has planted "around 380,000 trees."

Peterson does a little political spinning for Villaraigosa and notes that's been accomplished "at a rate six times faster than under the previous mayor."

Well, as far as it's known, Villaraigosa's predecessor, Mayor James Hahn, never promised to plant a million trees during his one, four-year term between 2001 and 2005.

Time for a reality check. 380,000 is not one million trees -- it's not even close.

This is no small screw up, with far-reaching consequences if you take Villaraigosa's word for it.

On the Million Trees L.A. web site, Villaraigosa writes about the major importance of the program on Angelenos' everyday quality of life.

"The trees will provide shade and save on energy costs, clean the air and help reduce the greenhouse gases that cause global warming, capture polluted urban runoff, improve water quality, and add beauty to our neighborhoods," the mayor notes.

So if the KPCC figure is correct, and L.A. has only planted a fraction of the one million trees that would make things healthy and clean in the city, that means clean air, water quality, and all the rest have been seriously compromised by the inability to get the job done, right?

Andy Lipkis doesn't want to talk about it. Neither does one of America's greenest mayors.

Update and correction:When we tried to contact chief spokesman Teddy Davis in an emailed request for an interview, we got radio silence. That's because, the Mayor's Office explains, Davis is no longer chief spokesman. Villaraigosa's office says Davis set up an automatic reply on his City Hall email when he left his job.

Our sincere apologies for the error of not knowing Davis had departed. City Hall's auto-reply for Davis did not work in this case, and we sometimes hear nothing back from Villaraigosa's office on controversial topics. The silence didn't seem unusual to us.

Davis has departed to be director of strategic communications for Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley.

A steamed Peter Sanders, Villaraigosa's new chief spokesman, responded via email that:


Maybe this is too difficult of a task for you, and if so, you have my sympathy for the enormity of this challenge. But typically, reporters generally inquire with us if they have deadline-related questions and we do our best to facilitate a response."

The Mayor's Office has not been happy about the numerous media reports mentioning how far behind they are on their Million Trees initiative.

Sanders says they have made strides, planting more than one-third of the promised one million trees for a total count of 380,000, and that the survival rate of the trees is "double the national average" with about 4 percent to 5 percent of them dying after planting.

Contact Patrick Range McDonald at


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