Afterword by Andy Lipkis
Trees Are Our Partners
Having spent the last thirty-five years planting trees in pursuit of an environmental restoration akin in spirit to Jean Giono’s, I find the story a refreshing and re-inspiring reminder of the long-term payoff of my work. The story is beautiful in its simplicity. It speaks to the promise of tree planting and its power to restore health, abundance, community, water, habitat, and life itself. I believe it touches on archetypal ideas that we all carry, imprinted somewhere in our genes, about our human need to work with trees to repair and restore the life-support systems of our damaged planet.
The effects of tree planting can be profound for reversing the current environmental decline in cities and rural areas across the globe. The need for people to participate in urban and rural forestry efforts has never been greater. Climate change, desertification, drinking water shortages, urban flooding, storm-water pollution, skin cancer, and pollution-caused lung disease are worsening and increasingly threatening human health and safety and economic opportunity throughout the world. Tree planting and community forestry provide some of the most effective tools to prevent or mitigate these immense problems.
Because tree planting is potentially so powerful and because the global need is so great, it is important for readers to understand both the challenges and possibilities so that they can take effective action, whether they get involved by supporting others or make their own commitments.
The Story of TreePeople
My own story of starting TreePeople illustrates what is possible. Growing up in Los Angeles, I developed a special relationship with the mountain forests about two hours east of the city. My parents used to send me to the San Bernardino Mountains for summer camp, and there I grew to love the forest, in part because tree-cleansed fresh air provided a respite from the city’s lung-stinging pollution. In 1970, when I turned fifteen, the U.S. Forest Service announced that the trees and forest were being killed by air pollution and declared that if nothing was done, the local forest as we knew it would be dead by the year 2000. Under the direction of camp leaders, I worked with other teenagers for three weeks planting a meadow and grove of smog-tolerant trees on an area that had been turned into a truck parking lot. That work felt so good that I wanted to keep going and get kids all over the forest to plant trees and work to save it.
After three years of trying, failing, quitting, learning, and trying again, I finally succeeded in rounding up 8,000 trees, tools, trucks, and a crew of camp and college friends. A news article in the Los Angeles Times inspired thousands of people to send donations of fifty cents to a dollar apiece, and so with a tiny budget, and help from my family, we incorporated as a nonprofit organization and launched TreePeople. We spent the first summer teaching campers throughout the San Bernadino forest about why it was dying and why they were needed to save it. Then we worked with them to plant the trees and water them.
The summer planting quickly grew into an annual effort. We realized that because smog from the city was killing the trees, we needed to clean up the city air to protect the forest trees. With some of the worst air in the United States, and little interest or progress in cleaning it up at that time, I sought to involve city people in the hope that their participation would deepen their awareness and motivate them to take care of the air and the environment, and that they would become willing to make the lifestyle changes needed to get there. We launched environmental education and urban forestry programs, involving thousands of school children and their families in planting trees in both the city and the mountain forests.
The programs grew in their reach and sophistication. We launched a four-year campaign to inform and motivate the people of greater Los Angeles to plant one million trees before the 1984 Summer Olympic Games. Learning of the planned destruction of nearly one million surplus fruit trees, we organized to rescue, prune, prepare, and distribute tens of thousands of them to thousands of low-income families. Those trees survived to produce tons of fruit along with lessons and hope for the families who cared for them. Several years later, when we learned of the sub-Saharan famine, we partnered with international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and local organizations in fourteen villages in four countries in Africa. Two TreePeople volunteers worked with each village to prepare the people and sites for the trees, and when each region was ready, we put prepared trees on Pan Am jets and airlifted them over for planting. After six months, villagers and volunteers had planted five thousand large trees in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, and the Cameroon.
Although our plantings were very successful, it took many years of trial and error to learn that the benefits of trees are not guaranteed by random acts of planting. We also learned that without proper planning, site, and tree selection, it was possible to worsen all of these issues while wasting precious time and money.
These important lessons ultimately shaped our organization into a vehicle poised to transform Los Angeles into a sustainable urban environment. In three decades we went through three distinct phases. I share these stages to help others avoid having to reinvent the wheel.
During the first ten years, although we were a grassroots organization, we planted trees for people. We perfected the mechanism of recruiting and training volunteers and ensuring that trees were planted well. But in evaluating long-term impacts, we found that tree survival wasn’t as high as we’d hoped because the neighborhood people weren’t taking care of and protecting the trees; they didn’t feel they owned the trees.
We focused our second decade on teaching, guiding and supporting people to become Citizen Foresters. With an in-depth training and support program, ordinary people learned how to make their dreams manifest in their own neighborhoods. They organized their neighborhoods, raised some funds, and hosted the plantings, ensuring a profound sense of ownership. We backed them up with tools, trucks, insurance, and from dozens to hundreds of volunteers, depending on their needs. The result: we found that 90 percent of Citizen Forester–planted trees were alive after five years, combating the U.S. average national life span of seven years for urban trees.
After twenty years, I began to wonder if our trees were making enough of a difference to counter all the damage our city was doing to human health and the world’s environment. They weren’t. So I launched a ten-year, million dollar research effort—called the T.R.E.E.S. Project (Trans-agency Resources for Environmental and Economic Sustainability) and learned that trees could have a tremendous impact if we applied the best practices of science, forestry, engineering, and watershed management. But to accomplish our goals, we needed to shift from random planting to strategic planting. We needed to begin practicing the acupuncture of planting, very consciously selecting and placing trees so they could capture, clean, and retain rainfall, while preventing pollution, drought, and flooding. We also needed to plant trees so that they could conserve energy and prevent air pollution by shading buildings, parking lots, and parked cars. Finally, we needed to mulch the fallen leaves and pruned branches to capture and recycle the nutrients, to conserve water, and to reduce the urban waste stream (40 percent of which is green “waste” in Los Angeles). All of this can happen by choosing the right tree for the right place, and by redesigning and adapting city land—with trees and tree-mimicking technologies like cisterns—to function like a forest.
That research paid off big time for the trees. While most government agencies and people appreciate trees, public investment in tree planting and maintenance values them only as decorations. When budgets are tight, tree maintenance and planting funds are nearly always among the first to be cut. We showed that it is technically and economically feasible for trees to solve key urban issues. Since we demonstrated trees’ strategic value, several key government agencies have dramatically altered their names, missions, programs, and budgets to incorporate trees and urban watersheds to solve problems. In Sun Valley, a Los Angeles suburb, the County Public Works Department’s new Watershed Management Division (formerly Flood Control) is developing a $200 million urban watershed plan instead of building a $50 million concrete storm drain. The higher cost is justified because the watershed approach will more than pay for itself in conserved water and energy and avoided pollution.
The Los Angeles experience is now being replicated in other cities around the United States. With proper research, planning, design, education, and public involvement, these profound changes are possible and applicable in cities around the world.
All of this grew out of the simple tree-planting action and dreams of one teenager. But these dreams have only taken root because thousands of people believed in and generously supported them, hundreds of others (over the years) joined his staff, thousands volunteered their time and energy, and then dozens of government agencies and other NGOs partnered, tested, improved, and implemented the ideas. And the story continues to unfold. Please check the TreePeople Web site (www.treepeople.org) for updates, newsletters, and more information—or to support our work.
How Trees Help Today
In addition to restoring soil structure and fertility, watershed functionality, and habitat to rural lands, trees are among the best tools we have for combating some of the world’s most pressing environmental problems.
On the most basic level, trees protect people’s lives. Consider the tsunami that struck the Indian Ocean just after Christmas 2004. As of the time of this writing, nearly 300,000 people in 12 countries were killed by the wave that followed a massive earthquake. Villages and towns thousands of miles away from the quake’s epicenter were devastated by the power of the water—except for the very few locations where natural mangrove forests were still intact. Mangrove forests are dense and grow along the shoreline and in coastal waters off tropical and semi-tropical land. They protect the land and the people by absorbing the force of a wave as it hits. According to early reports, far fewer people died and the areas behind the mangroves suffered far less damage. Unfortunately, in most of the populated regions around the Indian Ocean, the mangroves have been cut down to make way for development and shrimp farms. Research will tell whether a massive mangrove forest restoration effort is needed to better protect the millions of people who live in tropical lowlands adjacent to coastal waters.
Trees are just as important in developed countries. Trees and forests, both urban and rural, are models of sustainability. They help reduce air pollution and global warming gases; water pollution, drought, and flooding; energy use through conservation; and waste (e.g., mulching garden waste), while improving human physical and psychological health and the economy. Through careful and well-planned planting and restoration, it is
possible to establish urban and rural forests that costeffectively replace and enhance these natural life-support services, which are being lost to development and sprawl. Scientists report that nearly every natural ecosystem across the planet is showing signs of human-caused stress, and many are being wiped out entirely by urbanization and pollution. The consequences are significant.
What You Can Do
Sometimes doing the work of tree-planting and ecological restoration can seem like swimming against the tide. Be ready for problems and setbacks, and greet them as interesting challenges and lessons to strengthen you and your vision. In Western society we’ve grown to view problems as signs of failure, but this notion is disempowering. Because I spent so many years at the beginning trying and failing—and ultimately learning extremely valuable lessons—I came to view problems as gifts. Their solutions always provide extra energy (answers, friends, funds) to carry projects further toward their goals. I also came to view mistakes, not as failures, but as compost for success, rich in information needed to nourish future efforts.
Whether you want to plant a single tree or restore an entire watershed, there is information to guide you so that your efforts succeed. Whether you are an individual, a family, an existing organization, or a city, there are resources available to guide your planning, planting, and long-term care.
Founder and President
TreePeople, Los Angeles, California