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A million L.A. trees: Will they take root?

September 24, 2007|David Zahniser | Times Staff Writer

Monica Barra went to South Los Angeles last month to attend a jazz festival. She went home with a free tree, a one-gallon African sumac that she lugged around on a Sunday afternoon past the shops and restaurants of Leimert Park.

The college senior took the tree on an impulse, though each tree recipient was required to fill out a "pledge to plant," a form smaller than an index card and a signature feature of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's plan to plant 1 million trees across Los Angeles.

Six weeks later, Barra's leafy friend has yet to make contact with the soil. Because Barra has no land of her own, the tree sits in her apartment in Redlands, roughly 60 miles from Los Angeles.

"I just really like having trees and plants where I'm living," said Barra, who majors in literature, historiography and urban studies. "And it was free."

Villaraigosa has trumpeted his Million Trees LA initiative as a cornerstone of his environmental agenda, bringing it up before audiences as far away as London and Hong Kong. Each time, the mayor's refrain has been the same: "We're planting 1 million trees," a phrase that brings to mind a populace working harmoniously to transform Los Angeles into a verdant forest.

The reality, however, is that, in many cases, organizers are not so much planting trees as giving them away, offering them up by the hundreds at fairs, festivals and farmers markets, many of them in the summer in a year of intense drought.

So far, no one has checked to see whether those trees have been planted, are still alive or even are in Los Angeles, one of several cities pursuing massive tree initiatives.

More than two years into his term, Villaraigosa is roughly one-tenth of the way toward his tree-planting goal. Of the roughly 110,000 he lists as planted, more than half -- 51% -- were given away to the public. Of those given away, more than a third were seedlings: slender wisps that die unless they are planted immediately, tree advocates say.

The giveaway strategy has proved controversial among the city's environmentalists, who praise the mayor for focusing on trees yet worry that the program has been too fixated on a numerical goal.

"It's giving away trees to get your numbers up," said Peter Lassen, a member of the city's Community Forest Advisory Committee.

The issue is especially relevant now that Villaraigosa aides say they expect as many as 70% of the trees to be distributed to private property owners: 700,000 trees over the life of the program.

With each weekend giveaway, more people have filled out the pledge cards. And Barra's experience is hardly unique.

Teacher Yvette Davis took an olive tree and an African sumac from a Million Trees booth the same day as Barra. Both went onto a patio.

Then there's Koreatown resident Keita Mellion, a 26-year-old musician who also picked up a free tree at the jazz festival. Mellion has struggled to keep his seedling alive since August, when he went out of town for a week and a half and made no plans for watering it.

"I don't think the environment is very conducive to it," said Mellion, describing the tree that sits on his apartment patio, still encased in its one-inch plastic container. "It looks dried up."

Although Million Tree coordinator Lisa Sarno said Villaraigosa's team expects one out of every four trees to die, Lassen said the usual mortality rate for a tree given away at a fair is at least 50%.

The spur-of-the-moment tree adoptions are drawing sharp questions from Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, whose district has the fewest shade trees in the city, according to a city survey. Hahn said visitors to a festival are not necessarily dependable candidates for expanding the city's urban forest.

"It's sort of like adopting a bunny at Easter," she said. "People say, 'This will be fun.' And then it falls by the wayside. They don't have time, they go on vacation, and they're not really committed to it. Only the problem with [the trees] is you can't give them back. They just die."

Villaraigosa's tree team defended the 187 tree adoption events held so far, saying they are part of a civic engagement process that is essential to the program's long-term success. They also said they will develop a follow-up system by the end of the year.

"People love things that are free," said public works commissioner Cynthia Ruiz, the mayor's spokeswoman on the program. "And when they learn about the benefits of the trees, it's a win-win for everyone."

Villaraigosa's office says the city will be noticeably greener once the project is finished. And although the mayor's team said in July that it expected to reach 1 million by 2012, Ruiz said that deadline is increasingly less important.

"I'm not so much focused on the time frame," she said. "I'm just focused on having a successful million tree program."

In some ways, the Million Trees initiative resembles a larger agenda promoted by Villaraigosa immediately before and after he took office.

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