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TreePeople--an Idea That Keeps on Growing

HEARTBEAT L.A. People making a difference. One in a series.

December 25, 1991|MILES CORWIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Andy Lipkis has all the answers. He knows how to combat global warming. He knows how to reduce pollution in Santa Monica Bay. He knows how to deal with California's drought. He knows how to reduce smog in Los Angeles. He even knows how to halt the spread of the desert in drought-stricken Africa.

This, Lipkis says, is how you solve the world's problems: Plant trees.

So Lipkis has planted them. More than 5,000. And the organization he founded--TreePeople--has planted millions more in the mountains and cities of Southern California.

Through TreePeople, Lipkis and his wife, Katie, have spread the gospel of tree planting to more than 40 communities throughout the United States and in seven other countries. As a result,dozens of groups modeled after TreePeople have been created. In Australia, TreePeople helped local groups achieve their goal of planting 200 million trees.

But while tree planting is proliferating throughout the world, in Los Angeles--TreePeople's home base--Lipkis is facing a new challenge: The trees he and others have planted are suffering from neglect.

The city's tree work force has been cut by 60 positions and trees are maintained only once in 15 years. Trees are dying and new ones are not being planted to replace them.

To combat the trend, Lipkis and City Councilman Michael Woo recently announced a plan to create a citizen Urban Forest Commission. The commission could lobby for more funds--including private donations--and help oversee the planting and care of the city's trees.

Tree care and planting often are dismissed as cosmetic, Lipkis said, "a way to simply make the city prettier."

"Tree planting is looked at as some very nice, but wimpy activity," he said. "That really irritates me. Most people don't realize the significant environmental benefits from planting trees."

Lipkis, 36, is a man obsessed by trees. He will talk endlessly about their multitudinous benefits. He talks about trees so often and so passionately that tree-related metaphors have become a part of his speech. He earnestly talks about "concepts taking root," "planting the seed of an idea" and "branching out into other areas."

When Lipkis founded TreePeople he was an 18-year-old college freshman hustling for small donations so he could plant 8,000 trees in the San Bernardino National Forest. He dropped out of college and established an office in a bedroom in his parent's home. The seedlings he raised were housed in pots in friends' back yards.

Today TreePeople has 36 paid employees, 30,000 dues-paying members and a global presence. More than 25 corporations and 10 nonprofit foundations have donated money to TreePeople, and the group has a yearly budget of more than $2 million.

Since the early 1970s, shortly after rangers announced that trees in the San Bernardino National Forest were dying from smog, Lipkis has been planting trees. He has planted trees in the mountains. He has planted trees along suburban city streets. He has planted trees by the beach. He has planted trees in the inner city.

TreePeople is based at an old fire station at the top of Coldwater Canyon, a sprawling 45-acre complex that includes a nursery, an organic garden, five miles of nature trees and numerous ecological displays for the more than 50,000 school children who visit every year. The group has grown steadily, but the reports of global warming in the late 1980s galvanized public interest in Lipkis' work.

His message that one person can make a difference--by planting trees--caught on. Lipkis and his wife wrote a book, "The Simple Act of Planting a Tree: Healing Your Neighborhood, Your City and Your World," and it has sold more than 30,000 copies in the last year. The book, a guide to action, makes tree planting sound like a political, almost revolutionary act. It includes chapters such as: "Taking It to the Streets . . ." and ". . . Organizing Your Community."

TreePeople helped residents in an impoverished South Los Angeles area of apartments and warehouses raise money, obtain city permits and plant trees.

"All kinds of people in the community, including gang members, were out there breaking up concrete and planting trees," Lipkis said, "Afterward, people gave the community a name and formed a Neighborhood Watch group. The process of planting the trees really created a feeling of community for the first time."

Lipkis' work has made it easier for wildlife professionals in Southern California, said Joe Ferrara, a chief in the Los Angeles County Fire Department's Forestry Division.

"By just making so many more people aware of the value of trees, he's done a great service," Ferrara said. "The people he's reached are less prone to chop trees for firewood, less prone to damage trees in general. That makes it easier for us to do our job."

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