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Sprout Up and Be Counted

Surveying our arboreal demographic groups

November 06, 2005|JANET KINOSIAN

Andy Lipkis, environmentalist, sustainability advocate and founder of the urban reforesting nonprofit TreePeople, also is something of an urban Johnny Appleseed who has helped plant more than 2 million trees in Southern California. Lipkis currently is in the initial stages of an ambitious urban tree census project piloted by TreePeople in cooperation with L.A.'s Street Tree Division, Cal State Northridge, San Diego State University, the Center for Urban Forest Research and the Casey Trees Endowment Fund. Volunteers use hand-held Geographic Information Systems and Global Positioning System technology to log the geo-coordinates and vital statistics of trees in the project's launch communities of Sun Valley and Brentwood.

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What exactly is a tree census?

It's basically an electronic-referenced database of the community forest; counting your trees and your tree assets, including empty spaces [where trees could be planted], in most cases paid for and created and managed by the municipal government. A lot of trees in Los Angeles are actually large shrubs. If it's a street tree or plant that counts as part of the city's asset/liability base, and they have to maintain it, it should be in there. There were between 670,000 and 680,000 street trees in Los Angeles in 1995. Estimates are that now there are about 700,000 trees in L.A., with a net gain of about 5,000 to 9,000 trees last year.

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Has Los Angeles done a tree census before?

The Street Tree Division had them in 1990 and 1995. And Department of Water and Power inspectors carry computers with the location of every tree under every power line in Southern California. Anytime a tree in a power line causes it to spark and create a fire, DWP is liable.

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But your project isn't about liability. Why is a tree census important to you?

For the most part, the general public considers urban forestry street decoration. You sometimes hear about improving air quality and other benefits. They're immense, but for that you need to know where your trees are and what kind they are. I'm talking about flood control, storm water treatment, pollution prevention, air filtration. If we capture the rainfall and use it right, we'd save about half a billion dollars a year just in water. A tree is an incredible water capturer, storage, infiltration and filtration device. And that's what goes into the census database: oxygen and water volume, the tree's canopy, size, age, location, health. These trees are producing very valuable services.

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Why Brentwood and Sun Valley as launch points?

A Brentwood resident wanted to do something to help the tree population and eventually came to us. We said, since Brentwood is one of the most served communities, we'll do it if we're twinned with an underserved one. Brentwood could get complacent about the beauty of its trees; they're aging. South Los Angeles had a beautiful urban forest years ago; it aged, it died and didn't get replaced. This is another reason to do this census. A natural forest has an uneven age. An urban forest usually has an even age; street trees are all planted at the same time. We want to identify the age horizon and plant the next generation before trees start dying en masse.

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Let's have some tree lore. Can you give us a distinctive L.A. treescape?

There was a beautiful street in East Los Angeles with red flowering Chinese flame trees. The whole street was lined with them, and the street's name was Druid. That name really evokes the love of trees. They were there 15 years ago. I can't imagine why they still wouldn't be there. Probably one of the classic stories of inappropriate trees goes to our very own city tree: the coral. It was introduced [from South America] by Dr. Sam Ayres, a plant fan, in the early part of the last century. He planted the San Vicente Boulevard coral trees. They're so brittle and they're semi-tropical, so it needs more water than you'd want economically.

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What would be the ideal L.A. tree?

Something that includes diversity [and] also native strength and sustainability. Those categories get you into the family of oaks. Los Angeles has four climate zones. The oak that spans those zones is the coastal live oak; it's our native and fed the Indians and all that. Representing L.A.'s diversity, it provides habitat to about 300 subspecies. Another is the California sycamore. It's inspiring because it grows back after fire. A bank of oaks can actually stop a fire as a firebreak.

But in a fanciful way, those coral trees represent the fact that people come from all over the world to L.A. and somehow thrive. And the beauty of other cultures and countries now grace and add to Los Angeles.

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