The dedicated people behind Tree People are building a greener future for Los Angeles, one seedling at a time.
When 15-year-old Andy Lipkis went off to camp in the summer of 1970, he couldn’t predict that a talk he’d hear on the crises facing the environment would inspire him to become a modern-day Johnny Appleseed, and that within a few years of that fateful trip he would be changing the way Americans responded to their environment — one tree at a time.
It is truly a story for the history books, and one that is still being written 40 years later. As the founder of Tree People, Lipkis will be the first to tell you that it is often the seemingly small decisions and changes in course that have the greatest influence on the big picture.
The journey began in a parking lot when Lipkis inspired his fellow summer camp attendees to reunite and transform said parking lot into a tree-filled meadow. In 1973, Lipkis set his sights on obtaining 20,000 sugar pine seedlings from the California Department of Forestry for planting in local summer camps. Although the camps quickly came on board, state law prohibited the donation of saplings, which led Lipkis to embark on a media-assisted campaign to raise money and awareness for the cause.
Donors ranged from major contributors like Sears and American Motors to children who sent in $.50 donations, and the $10,000 that Lipkis raised ultimately helped purchase 8,000 seedlings and the necessary supplies. Originally naming their organization “California Conservation Project,” Lipkis and his family soon achieved non-profit status, and by 1976 they had been granted the Mountain Fire Station 108 by the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks (which is now the organization’s home base in Coldwater Canyon Park).
In 1978, after severe rains resulted in their mobilizing volunteers to help combat subsequent flooding, Tree People was designated “L.A.’s Emergency Resource Center.” By 1984, just one day before the lighting of the Olympic torch in Los Angeles, the organization achieved its goal of planting 1,000,000 trees throughout the city, and since then they have helped galvanize greening efforts across the country and around the globe.
Today, Tree People’s W.M. Keck Foundation Nursery grows thousands of seedlings each year and has planted more than 80,000 fruit trees on school campuses, in community gardens, and even in people’s backyards. The organization plants 20,000 native plants and trees annually as part of their mountain restoration program (usually using locally collected seeds and acorns), while their Eco-Tour program plants and distributes an average of 12,000 seedlings every six years.
Lipkis’ vision for building a greener world has proven itself to be ever evolving, in no small part because the challenges that face the planet often demand innovative and even technologically-oriented solutions. In places where trees can’t be planted or where green-designated space is limited, Tree People’s goal is to re-create the functions of a forest with innovations like permeable paving that, unlike asphalt, stays much cooler and allows water to seep into the ground. Building such areas will require time and commitment, and Lipkis said that the U.S. is in the earliest stages of seeing such communities become a reality.
Perhaps operating on the principle that it is best to teach by example, Tree People’s Coldwater Canyon base of operations holds a 216,000-gallon underground storage cistern, which collects and saves rainwater from the center’s rooftops and parking grove. The water is filtered and then stored for use in dry months, when so many of the property’s plants must be irrigated to survive.
“Last year was one of the driest on record, and the very day that Mayor Villaraigosa declared we were in a state of drought emergency, it rained,” Lipkis said. The water in our cistern was sufficient to take one year’s needs off the grid. If everyone in Los Angeles had a cistern, we could curb the trend of throwing away eight to 10 billion gallons of water every time it rains.”
Lipkis was quick to point out that the winds of change often blow wherever average citizens spend their money, and he cited the prevalence of organic produce sections in many markets as evidence of the measures that grocery chains will make when they don’t want to lose their customers to smaller chains like Whole Foods. He is also a firm believer in the power of education and noted that when Tree People partnered with the city in the late 1980s to teach children about the importance of recycling, those same kids then took that message home to their parents and Los Angeles soon became the national leader in curbside recycling.
Marketing campaigns can also help ensure success, as was proven in recent years when ads promoting water conservation resulted in Angelenos dropping water consumption by 30%. “Leaving your water running while you brush your teeth or wash your dishes is now almost taboo,” Lipkis stated, “and we use less water today than when our drought began, even though the city is now home to 1,000,000 more people.”
Here in the South Bay, Tree People will host a tree care educational event at Peck Park in Torrance on July 13, and another one at Banning Park in Wilmington on July 27. A complete calendar of events can be found on their website at treepeople.org.
Reflecting on the work that lies ahead of us amidst both the pitfalls and promise of our consumerist society, Lipkis’ perspective is mindful of the forces that unite rather than divide us. “At the end of the day, the feeling of togetherness that people experience after a planting event isn’t really all that different from the feeling that’s conveyed in beer commercials. They want to work together and they want to have fun, and it’s ultimately in merging those aims that we can accomplish what we need to accomplish as a community.”