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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Los Arboles?

Air Date: Week of

Los Angeles will soon announce a program to plant one million trees in the city. Living on Earth's Ingrid Lobet takes a look at the historic roots and green future of tree planting in L.A.


CURWOOD: Some time in the next few weeks the mayor of an American city best known for freeways will announce what seems like an unlikely goal: the planting of one million trees. If Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa succeeds in getting residents on board, the city's tree cover would increase by nearly 60%. As Living on Earth's Ingrid Lobet reports, it could happen. In fact it did happen once before.

LOBET: Turn back the clock two and a half decades. The air in Los Angeles is so bad, ozone is killing pine trees on the forested slopes east of the city. A young environmental group called Treepeople rallies Angelinos to replant, to replace the dying forests. Ruddy and ready, these volunteers not only plant trees, they seem to show up every time winter flooding and mudslides call for a shovel.

NEWS ARCHIVES: Well, the 'Treepeople' volunteers will be out in force this weekend.

The 'Treepeople,' an environmental group that played such an important role, did so much work in helping Southland residents just survive last month’s storms.

Today the Los Angeles City Council adopted a resolution thanking the 'Treepeople' for their efforts…

LOBET: Treepeople and its energetic founder Andy Lipkis seemed unstoppable. Their efforts generated attention environmental groups today can only dream of. One moment some recall fondly is Lipkis's appearance on the Johnny Carson show.

CARSON SHOW: A great pleasure to introduce the founder and director of this fine organization, Andy Lipkis. Andy?

CARSON: So this little, I guess you’d call this a seedling. And this is going to be a redwood?

LIPKIS: It's already a redwood. (Brings the house down)

CARSON: I can't drive my car through it Andy.

LOBET: Treepeople pushed residents of Los Angeles to plant trees in the forests and in their yards, to plant a million, in time for the 1984 Olympics, and they did.

Now fast forward to 2006. An energetic mayor, L.A.'s first Latino mayor in a hundred years, sees a city where upscale neighborhoods may be leafy, but poorer neighborhoods are often barren stretches of endless pavement. Within 24 hours of his swearing in, Villaraigosa planted a seedling with Treepeople and now he says, the city needs a new tree campaign.

VILLARAIGOSA: We need to accelerate our ambitions. We'll be breaking ground shortly on our initiative to plant a million new trees, here in the city of Los Angeles.

DANIELS: This has been the most incredibly inspiring project I have ever worked on.

LOBET: Environmental activist and city official Paula Daniels was tapped by the mayor to head up the new Million Trees program, one that hopes to benefit from the water, air and urban tree research of the last two decades, one with a shift in emphasis.

DANIELS: I know he very much wants to provide beauty in places that don't have beauty. And he wants to create environmental change in areas that are suffering. He wants to make this the greenest big city in the nation.

LOBET: Los Angeles? The greenest big city in the nation? Chicago, Minneapolis: These cities have had serious greening programs for years. Here, on the other hand, we're often confused about what a tree even is.

DANIELS: I've had a lot of questions about palm trees. Palm trees are iconic to Los Angeles, but they are, by the way, a grass. And they don't actually provide the environmental benefits that we are seeking.

LOBET: "Environmental benefits." That's the way planners talk about the urban forest today. Perhaps the most significant change since LA's last massive tree-planting campaign is that urban tree experts now pride themselves on the ability to quantify ways trees benefit cities—pounds of carbon dioxide removed, gallons of water cleaned, hours of air-conditioning avoided.

TRETHEWAY: My name is Ray Tretheway. I’m the executive director of the Sacramento Tree Foundation.

LOBET: In the state capital, 400 miles north of L.A., temperatures can stay over 100 degrees, late in the afternoon, for weeks each year. Not too long ago, 350 thousand trees were planted in Sacramento, effectively creating a desert oasis. The tree effort there got some of its advice from the nation's space agency, NASA.

TRETHEWAY: If we doubled our canopy, it lowers our ambient air temperature – by their studies – two point nine degrees fahrenheit.

LOBET: Two point nine degree may not sound like much, but it can reduce the number of days the air violates federal smog standards, since ozone is produced when pollutants bake in the sun. It also translates into shade, and lower demand for air conditioning.

TRETHEWAY: This is all about canopy. A large canopy tree versus small canopy tree; it’s about 12 times the amount of leaf cover – minimum – in a large canopy tree.

LOBET: Cities have increasingly sophisticated tools for this work. This month urban foresters from the US Forest Service will roll out new software that allows cities to quickly estimate their tree canopy, the condition of the trees and potential vacant planting sites. Greg McPherson directs the Center for Urban Forest Research and helped develop the software. He says 15 cities have already compared the cost of pruning and watering their trees with the benefit their trees provide by cooling, removing pollution and CO2, catching rainfall, even increased property taxes from higher home values.

MCPHERSON: So for every dollar invested every year in tree management, the benefits can be in the order of $1.50 to $3.50 per tree.

LOBET: With the software on handheld computers, teams of volunteers can gather the data by measuring a sample of trees at chest height.

MCPHERSON: If you know the species and you know the size, that’s enough to come up with an estimate of the leaf area, the height, the crown diameter of the tree.

LOBET: Then the samples are combined with satellite images to create a picture of the city’s green.

MCPHERSON: So it's great because it allows volunteers to learn about their trees, to meet other people. And it saves cities money because otherwise they would pay anywhere from 2-3 dollars per tree to have a professional inventory these trees.

LOBET: Los Angeles residents will soon encounter these new methods as the million tree campaign launches, in English, Korean and Spanish. Different environmental groups have been assigned city districts, and will organize neighbors to plant purchased and donated Ginkos, Chinese flames, and Coast Live Oaks. Hollywood will no doubt have a role, as it did back in 1983 with this public service announcement featuring Gregory Peck.

PECK: Turn over a new leaf, Los Angeles. Help plant the urban forest.

LOBET: For Living On Earth, I'm Ingrid Lobet in Los Angeles.



Tree-Link: The Urban Forestry Portal

iTree: Tools for Assessing and Managing Community Forests

Million Trees LA

Northeast Trees



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