Like the seedlings that its volunteers have planted throughout Southern California over the past 14 years, the TreePeople environmental group has matured and is branching out to expand its concept of a "working urban forest."
The nonprofit group, which last night celebrated 10 years at its Coldwater Canyon Park headquarters with a fund-raising dinner, will continue to plant young trees, said founder Andy Lipkis, but will also push for other environmental concerns such as recycling, disaster preparedness, energy conservation and ride-sharing programs.
"Planting trees is a way of getting people together," Lipkis, 32, said in an interview on a recent rainy morning in his small office in Coldwater Canyon. "Once we have the people together, then we can use human energy like we use the energy from the trees to fight pollution and to help conserve our dwindling natural resources.
"We definitely are the most wasteful society in the world," he said. "The city is coming to the end of its ability to throw away things."
For example, Lipkis estimates that 25% of all trash dumped in landfills is tree and garden trimmings. He said that if those trimmings were recycled as compost, existing canyon landfills wouldn't get filled up as quickly.
TreePeople operates on a $360,000 annual budget, most of which is used to pay the salaries of 10 full-time and four part-time employees. In addition, the group receives more than $1.5 million in non-monetary contributions, such as gardening tools and seeds.
The organization, which gets all of its funds from private donations, receives no government support.
TreePeople is best known for planting 1 million trees for the 1984 Olympic Games.
In 1980, the Los Angeles Planning Department came to the group with the proposal after a South Coast Air Quality Management Board report said that a massive tree planting effort would significantly improve air quality.
Planning officials had estimated that it would take the city 20 years and cost $20 million to plant the trees.
"We told them that with volunteers we could do it in time for the Olympics, at 1% of the cost, none of which would be taxpayers' money," Lipkis said.
TreePeople, which began as the California Conservation Project in 1973, reached its goal four days before the start of the Games.
City planners predict that when the trees reach 20 years of age, they will filter as much as 200 tons of pollutants daily from the air.
Art Davidson, a spokesman for the AQMD, said the district lauds TreePeople's efforts.
"We're pleased with the efforts of the TreePeople from an aesthetics viewpoint and from the point of moderating the climate by providing more shade," he said. "Urban forestation is a good idea and increases the general quality of life."
Spokesmen for Westside councilmen Marvin Braude and Zev Yaroslavsky agree.
"There is absolutely no question that the TreePeople have made a tremendous difference in the quality of life by not only making us more aware of preserving and, indeed, adding new trees, but in the appearance and quality of the air," said Glenn Barr, a spokesman for Braude. "It is a valuable organization to the city."
"In an urban environment like Los Angeles, it is important to have a group foresting the area," said Michelle Krotinger, a spokeswoman for Yaroslavsky.
Since the Olympics, the TreePeople have planted eucalyptus trees in the San Fernando Valley to provide food for the koalas at the Los Angeles Zoo, replanted oak trees in Cheeseboro Canyon and last year airlifted fruit trees in the African nations of Ethiopia, Kenya, Cameroon and Senegal. Lipkis said that about 90% of the trees they planted in Africa have survived.
"These were surplus fruit tress that were going to be thrown away," he said. "Instead we are helping provide food in an area that desperately needs it."
The group is preparing to plant trees next spring in the Sierra, Sequoia and Stanislaus forests to replace those destroyed by fire this summer.
In addition, TreePeople has developed a school program that attempts to teach children about the environment. More than 150,000 pupils have toured the group's 45-acre facility atop a ridge at Coldwater Canyon Avenue and Mulholland Drive, Lipkis said.
The children plant seeds in the TreePeople's nursery--which has distributed 400,000 trees--and are allowed to take other seedlings home for planting.
"The process is continuous," Lipkis said. "Children take seedlings that were planted by other children, and they know that the seeds they plant will be taken by other children in the future."
The group's efforts went beyond tree planting when it helped place sandbags during floods in 1978 and 1980, served as an emergency center for the Laurel Canyon fire in 1979 and helped salvage books damaged in last year's fire at the Los Angeles Central Library. The organization also participates in the state earthquake task force to help plan neighborhood self-help programs.
Lipkis said his effort to expand the group's focus beyond tree planting will continue. "In 1973 I said I would do this for only one year," he said. "But after a semester in school I felt a vacuum in my life. I came back. There is always going to be a need for people to plant trees."