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Felled Trees Seedlings of Great Green Movement

Landscape architect vows to continue beautifying local areas through plantings.

August 24, 2003|Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writer

The trees chopped down and dragged off the hill at Occidental College last week meant more to 81-year-old Scott Wilson than the nicely framed sunsets or shaded strolls they provided.

The 65 oaks and sycamores were among hundreds planted on the Eagle Rock campus 13 years ago as the first effort by North East Trees, which the landscape architect founded to beautify diverse pockets of northeast Los Angeles.

Since then the nonprofit group has created miniature parks along the Los Angeles River's concrete channel and, under Wilson's supervision, taught gang members how to green up open spaces along the highly urbanized Red Line transit route, among other projects.

This month Occidental College cleared a scenic three-acre grove on a hill that locals call Mt. Fiji to make way for eventual development of the land, spokesman Jim Tranquada said.

"It's one of the last developable flat areas on campus," he said, adding that most of the trees planted by Wilson's group remain on another 32 acres.

"Cutting trees is always difficult," he said. "It's something everyone prefers not to see."

Wilson said he was saddened about the tree removal, but not angry. He said that, from the time the trees were planted, his organization had an understanding with college officials that they might one day be removed if Occidental wanted to develop the property. "We made a deal," he said. "I had made a moral commitment ... that all the trees were vulnerable."

He could have caused trouble, he said, "but that wouldn't have been an honorable thing to do."

Beyond their environmental and aesthetic value, the trees harbored a strong symbolism for Wilson -- seedlings of environmental efforts throughout the county.

Wilson, who holds master's degrees in agricultural education and landscape architecture, taught for three decades at Eagle Rock, Crenshaw and North Hollywood high schools before retiring in 1982.

He has lived a half-century in Eagle Rock, where the high school dedicated a plaque in his honor before a sprawling oak. For most of that time, Mt. Fiji loomed as a promising, but mostly fallow, hill.

In December 1989, Wilson attended a lecture at the campus held by TreePeople, a conservation and tree-planting organization that was there to recruit students to help with urban forestry. The meeting inspired Wilson to propose doing something about the barren hill. Occidental officials agreed, and the L.A. County forestry division donated hundreds of saplings.

Wilson formed North East Trees and recruited help to green up the hill.

Over the years, he thought the trees might serve as their own best defense.

"With such beautiful trees up there," he said, "their beauty would defend them better than anybody could. Why would anybody want to cut them?"

Still, he said, he was grateful that the college had allowed him to plant the trees at all.

"They gave us a lot of support," he said.

The planting of trees on Mt. Fiji inspired the World War II veteran to expand his efforts.

North East Trees built so-called pocket parks along the L.A. River and was one of the organizations that successfully pushed for the creation of a 20-acre expanse of soccer and baseball fields at downtown Los Angeles' Taylor rail yard. The group helped residents in Watts landscape a park and worked with the city of Pasadena to write the manual that will be used to plant trees there.

Last summer, the organization presented a feasibility study at Caltech to a variety of public agencies and environmentalists on ways of making places along the Arroyo Seco River system more natural-looking.

Among other things, the study, funded by the Coastal Conservancy and the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, proposed ways to bring environmental justice to working-class neighborhoods in Los Angeles in need of green spaces.

"It's a quality-of-life issue," said Claire Robinson, North East Trees' executive director.

The group's next project will be for the city of Azusa in which North East Trees will landscape the foothills of the Angeles National Forest with native plants.

"They tackle a lot of projects in terms of planning. That makes them different," said Kathleen Bullard, chief of the watershed division for the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority.

Many groups will plant trees, clean streams and maintain parks, she said, but North East Trees conceptualizes how to get things done, then acts -- something more characteristic of public agencies.

North East Trees helped lead Pete Beaudoin to a new career in horticulture. Tired of his job in the printing industry, Beaudoin heard about the group and volunteered to irrigate the newly planted trees at Occidental.

Now 53 and a landscape/horticulture coordinator for the UC Cooperative Extension Common Ground Garden Program, Beaudoin said that, through his work with North East Trees, he had developed skills he would later use in his new career.

Wilson taught him to be resourceful. "I learned how to be creative, how to think on my feet and how to take initiative," Beaudoin said.

Among other projects, Beaudoin has designed greenhouses so the Los Angeles County Department of Probation can train young inmates for jobs in landscaping and horticulture.

Wilson said he is proud of the role North East Trees has had in educating people, particularly children, about the environment.

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