A million L.A. trees: Will they take root?

By David Zahniser
Los Angeles (September 24, 2007)- Monica Barra went to South Los Angeles last month to attend a jazz festival. She went home with a free tree, a one-gallon African sumac that she lugged around on a Sunday afternoon past the shops and restaurants of Leimert Park. The college senior took the tree on an impulse, though each tree recipient was required to fill out a “pledge to plant,” a form smaller than an index card and a signature feature of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s plan to plant 1 million trees across Los Angeles.

Six weeks later, Barra’s leafy friend has yet to make contact with the soil. Because Barra has no land of her own, the tree sits in her apartment in Redlands, roughly 60 miles from Los Angeles. “I just really like having trees and plants where I’m living,” said Barra, who majors in literature, historiography and urban studies. “And it was free.”
Villaraigosa has trumpeted his Million Trees LA initiative as a cornerstone of his environmental agenda, bringing it up before audiences as far away as London and Hong Kong. Each time, the mayor’s refrain has been the same: “We’re planting 1 million trees,” a phrase that brings to mind a populace working harmoniously to transform Los Angeles into a verdant forest.
The reality, however, is that, in many cases, organizers are not so much planting trees as giving them away, offering them up by the hundreds at fairs, festivals and farmers markets, many of them in the summer in a year of intense drought. So far, no one has checked to see whether those trees have been planted, are still alive or even are in Los Angeles, one of several cities pursuing massive tree initiatives.
More than two years into his term, Villaraigosa is roughly one-tenth of the way toward his tree-planting goal. Of the roughly 110,000 he lists as planted, more than half were given away to the public. Of those given away, more than a third were seedlings: slender wisps that die unless they are planted immediately, tree advocates say.
Although Million Tree coordinator Lisa Sarno said Villaraigosa’s team expects one out of every four trees to die, Lassen said the usual mortality rate for a tree given away at a fair is at least 50%.
Villaraigosa’s office says the city will be noticeably greener once the project is finished. And although the mayor’s team said in July that it expected to reach 1 million by 2012, Ruiz said that deadline is increasingly less important. “I’m not so much focused on the time frame,” she said. “I’m just focused on having a successful million tree program.”
Still, few programs had as much difficulty gaining traction as the tree initiative, which has been repeatedly reworked. When the program was launched, Villaraigosa originally promised to add 300,000 new trees in the city’s parks. As of July, the Department of Recreation and Parks had planted 4,200, according to the mayor’s office.
Although Million Trees was billed as a $70-million program when it was rolled out last year, the mayor has raised just $3.2 million in private donations so far; $11.2 million has come from public agencies, four-fifths of it from the Department of Water and Power and the Port of Los Angeles.
Furthermore, nonprofit groups involved in the program say it should be judged not only on the numbers but also on its other benefits, from tree-care workshops to classes that will teach 8,000 students the value of having shade to cool the city. “If you have a kid that walks home from school with a seedling and learns about what the tree can contribute to the environment, there’s a value there that transcends the tree’s actual survival,” said Larry Smith, who heads the nonprofit North East Trees.
Behind the scenes, environmental groups long resisted the 1 million goal, saying such a number is arbitrary and could lead to hastily offered plants and fewer long-term benefits. Tree advocates recommended that Villaraigosa take 10 years, not four, to reach his target, Smith said. Meanwhile, one group decided it would rather hold just one tree giveaway each year: a massive citywide adoption of fruit trees in January, the height of the rainy season.
Andy Lipkis, president and founder of Tree People, said his group is pursuing the slower, more painstaking work of showing residents how to plant and care for a tree over the long term, even if that results in fewer new trees. “We didn’t want to buy into a numerical goal, not because numbers aren’t important but because we’ve seen that whenever they’re locked into a numerical goal, no matter what their higher goals were, at some point, they focus just on getting the numbers,” he said.
Tree People embarked on a campaign similar to Villaraigosa’s nearly three decades ago, asking Angelenos to plant 1 million trees in preparation for the 1984 Olympics. But unlike the mayor, Tree People did not consider a giveaway tree as planted unless the owners went to the trouble of mailing back a postcard stating it had gone into the ground.
Villaraigosa’s Million Trees program was formally launched one year ago, after 12 months of planning with half a dozen tree organizations. The mayor said it would beautify the city while creating shade to cool its low-income neighborhoods. The concept was based largely on a “canopy analysis,” a study that examined the places that had the fewest shade trees. Not surprisingly, the survey found that neighborhoods with large, mature trees — the kind that form a soaring arc over a street — were usually the ones with the greatest wealth. Consider the giant jacarandas that tower over sections of Sherman Oaks or the camphor trees that line the streets of Hancock Park.
With tree cover the thinnest south of the 10 Freeway, the Million Trees initiative has gone to such places as the jazz festival in Leimert Park, Ralphs supermarket on Crenshaw Boulevard and the farmers market in Watts.
For the full article, visit the Los Angeles Times.
Related Resources:
North East Trees
Million Trees LA