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The tree gangs of glittertown.

Los Angeles, like all cities great and small, can benefit from more and healthier trees. The Global ReLeaf challenge to plant trees for environmental improvement and to combat global warming is especially relevant to this sprawling metropolis of cars, suburbs, and freeways. Four citizen-activist groups living under the Los Angeles heat-and-haze umbrella have recognized the need to take up the challenge and make a difference locally. Their work is especially note-worthy for individuals and groups across the country trying to form tree alliances of their own. If these four organizations can make a difference in Los Angeles, their techniques will work in other parts of the nation, with minor modifications.

The three newer Los Angeles groups--Tree Musketeers, Northeast Trees, and the Tree Society of Orange County--find inspiration in the TreePeople legacy. TreePeople, founded by Andy Lipkis in 1970 when he was only 15, has been an incubator of sorts for the others. "I'll admit we have picked their brains," said Tree Musketeers' Gail Church. Scott Wilson founded NOrtheast Trees after attending a TreePeople seminar.

In its 21-year history, TreePeople has gained worldwide recognition for its tree-planting activities. It is best known as the group that organized the planting of one million trees prior to the 1984 Olympics. In 1986 TreePeople distributed 6,000 fruit trees to Africa, where the trees do double duty, providing food and aiding the environment. More recently, TreePeople has taken on a broader citizen-forester training mission, and it has played an integral role with AFA in organizing the Fifth National Urban Forest Conference, to be held this month (November) in Los Angeles.

But TreePeople is not about to give up its grassroots origins. When I visited the group's headquarters last February, I noted the plush Beverly Hills address, and as I drove past mansions and manicured lawsn, I wondered which of the great estates would belong to TreePeople. I was pleasantly surprised when I reached the top of a hill and found the tree group's home to be ever so humble.

TreePeople's base is a converted fire station and lookout perched atop a ridge that overlooks Beverly Hills to the south and Hollywood to the north. The buildings are on the grounds of a 45-acre public park, Coldwater Canyon Park. On the warm February day when I visited, it was too hazy to distinguish much of what was below.

TreePeople founders Andy and Katie Lipkis had just returned from a promotion tour for their book, The Simple Act of Planting a Tree. The book is a compilation of what they have learned about planning and funding tree-planting events. The authors challenge concerned individuals to become the creators and keepers of a new generation of urban forests, and they provide worksheets in the appendix to guide those getting started. The first printing of 60,000 sold out within a year, and a second printing is now available.

But tree planting and care are not the only activities promoted by TreePeople, as I found out during my visit. I watched a group of schoolchildren learn about recycling, organic gardening, and composting. Each year, TreePeople hosts thousands of children at workshops and meets with thousands more at area schools.

"We know our programs are successful when we have parents calling in and complaining that their kids are making them recycle," said Karen Johnson, TreePeople communications manager.

TreePeople also trains adult volunteers--called citizen foresters--in how to select tree species and planting sites, plant and maintain tree, obtain permits, raise funds, conduct meetings, and recruit volunteers. To date, TreePeople has "graudated" more than 150 citizen foresters, who then go back to their communities and mobilize residents to help improve the local environment.

Citizen training is an important ingredient with the three newer Los Angeles tree organization, too. The Tree Society of Orange County is based at the Fullerton Arboretum on the California State University campus and trains citizens on weekeneds. According to Tom Larson, founder and president, the key to getting a tree-planting organization up and running is to establish a strong network of professionals and people in the field who are willing to work.

"It's a matter of coordinating the best and the brightest," he told me. "Locate them and you can get a lot accomplished."

Larson also stressed the value of working with developers, not against them. The Tree Society recently joined with the Building Industry Association/Orange County Region (BIA) in an "Adopt a Tree" program. Members of the building association, along with the members' families and friends have planted hundreds of trees throughout Orange County this year. The adoption fee is $35 per tree, which would just about pay for the planting, but BIA instead donates the money back to the Tree Society to publicize and promote the program. Either way, Larson pointed out, it's a real bargain when you consider all that the tree will give back in its lifetime.

The objective of "Adopt a Tree" is to show how we can all become part of the solution, Larson said. "It's too easy for us to stay in our air-conditioned offices or cars isolated from the outdoors by our Fax machines and cellular phones. If we lose touch with the outdoors, we become calloused to vital life systems."

The coalition with BIA is helping the Society meet its goal of planting two million trees in Orange County by the year 2000. The Tree Society is the regional coordinator of California ReLeaf, so those two million trees are part of a larger state goal to plant 20 million trees and AFA's national goal of 100 million new trees in urban areas by 2000.

Larson sees Global ReLeaf as an ideal program: "It gives our society instant credibility and a format that is easy to sell."

Planting trees to cool the planet is especially important to Orange County, one of the most densely populated regions of the country. By planting trees, residents can cool their communities and reduce energy consumption. The area's five-year drought and chronic water shortages make the Global ReLeaf challenge especially relevant in Orange County and throughout the state.

When I caught up with Tree Musketeers one afternoon, the kids were busy training two adults and one new youth director in the ways and means of tree planting.

Kids? A youth director? That's right, Tree Musketeers is an organization run by and for kids. Its directors think it is probably the only nonprofit organization in the country run by youngsters. It was born four years ago when 13 Girl Scouts planted their first tree with the intention of saving the ozone layer. The eight-year-olds named their tree Marcie the Marvelous.

Gathering strength from other scouting troops, local businesses, and residents, Tree Musketeers endeavored to "tree-line" their community of El Segundo by Arbor Day 1990. They have accomplished that and a whole lot more.

Tree Musketeers' main mission is to develop El Segundo as a model city for other communities across the nation to emulate. The youngsters have learned how difficult it can be to get people involved but have not allowed any obstacle to stifle their creativity. They have recruited new members locally with an annual Arbor Day Tree-athlon. Participants run a mile, then bicycle two miles to a site for the final, crowning feat--planting a tree. Anyone can participate--you don't have to be an athlete or a youngster--by donating trees for planting or by adopting a tree and pledging to care for it.

To get environmental education into area classrooms and homes, Tree Musketeers produced a quiz show for kids called "Tree Stumpers." The youngsters took the project from original concept through production, and they even directed and starred in the six shows that appeared on the community cable network. The Tree Musketeers entourage also performed environmental comedy skits as commercials.

"The kids provide the ideas and the idealism," said adult trainee Barbara Keeler. "They cut through the intimidation we feel as adults will the magic of simple solutions."

Adults sometimes underestimate kids' ability to teach and lead. Three Musketeers was recently invited to an Arbor Day event at a school where 60 percent of the student population is English-deficient. Teachers and administrators warned the Tree Musketeers not to be disappointed if the students didn't respnd as the Musketeers expected. But a common language proved unnecessary for the Musketeers to teach their new friends, who were excited to find kids their own age doing something so important. "I want to be just like you," one child said to a Tree Musketeer.

TreePeople has no doubts about the Musketeers. I fact, last year TreePeople invited the youngsters to help supervise 10,000 volunteers planting 400 street trees in downtown Los Angeles on Martin Luther King Day.

Like TreePeople, Tree Musketeers activities have expanded to include recycling and other earth-saving work. The Musketeers have helped El Segundo reduce its residential trash 16 percent since April 1990. One of the kids' newest projects involves promoting water conservation and seeing that trees are not left high and dry in times of water shortages.

One of the strangest alliances the area has ever seen occurred when Tree Musketeers brought together city leaders and officials from a nearby sewage-treatment facility--two groups that generally don't see eye to eye--to plant trees.

Another unusual effort involved planting a sand dune with seedlings, shrubbery, and ground cover--a restoration effort helped by funding and volunteers from Chevron USA. About 75 Chevron employees, including engineers and top managers, rolled up their sleeves on Earth Day 1990 and followed the directions of the youngsters.

El Segundo is surrounded by the sewage plant to the west, the Chevron refinery to the south, and Los Angeles International Airport to the north. Tree Musketeers is currently concentrating its tree-planting efforts near the airport, and that is when I talked with them that warm afternoon.

"We learn a lot about the environment and the earth," said April Nemeth, raising her voice over the noise of jets overhead. She watered the pine she had just helped plant, knowing that in years to come, it will help screen her hometown from noise and air pollution.

If you attend the National Urban Forest Conference in Los Angeles this month, you can ask the kids what makes their organization work. They have participated in some of the planning sessions for the conference and will be there to greet conference-goers.

Northeast Trees is another Los Angeles organization that derives much of its motivation from young people. I caught up with founder Scott Wilson, two high schoolers, several college students, and some residents of Eagle Rock at their usual meeting spot--a bare hill that rises above the community of Eagle Rock.

In the spring of 1990, Northeast Trees planted 800 trees on the hillside. Almost half--350 of the trees--succumbed to the drought, despite weekly waterings. That day last February, the group was busy replacing the dead trees with live seedlings.

Planting on the hill has fulfilled a long-held dream for Scott Wilson. The north slope faces Eagle Rock High School, where Wilson taught horticulture in the 1960s. The land belongs to Occidental College, located on the other side of the hill, and Wilson sees it as a natural meeting ground where high school and college students can make a difference together.

The Los Angeles County forestry division donated about 200 coast live oak and Engelmann oak saplings for the first planting. Then Wilson started recruiting help. "It just began to come together," he recalled. College and high school students, city and county employees, and neighborhood residents signed up.

"The hill is what we are doing now," Wilson said, "but it is not all that we want to be." He said the organization's goal is to enlist high school students from Eagle Rock as well as surrounding communities--Burbank, Pasadena, etc.--to plant street trees.

Wilson is a natural to coordinate this mission; he taught high schoolers for 16 years. Now, along with a county forest ranger, he is teaching a Saturday class at Eagle Rock High for urban forestry technicians. The class draws seniors from neighboring schools to learn about the identification, selection, planting, and care of trees.

Meanwhile, Northeast Trees has done one street-tree planting in Eagle Rock and looks forward to more of those kind of opportunities now that it has gained nonprofit tax status, a recent achievement that will enable it to apply for grants.

But for now the group is faced with the challenged of keeping trees alive amid water restrictions. So it's back to the hill.

One tree volunteer, retired fireman Henry Haggard, used to chase fires across the hill every year. Now he goes there with a different, more hopeful mission. "Nothing gives a sense of stability and peace like a tree," Haggard said to me.

And that pretty much sums up the hopes and dreams of all four of these innovative Los Angeles tree-planting groups.

Deborah Boerner-Ein is a New Jersey freelancer who recently joined the editotial staff of Lapidary Journal.
COPYRIGHT 1991 American Forests
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:environmental groups in Los Angeles, California
Author:Boerner-Ein, Deborah
Publication:American Forests
Date:Nov 1, 1991
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