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L.A.’s Trees are Dying but is City Hall Doing Enough to Save Them?

For months, Encino resident Shelley Billik filled up 5-gallon water bottles, drove out to White Oak Avenue and watered the newly planted trees herself. The city of Los Angeles, she said, planted dozens of trees along the median, but without a maintenance plan or irrigation system to care for them.

SoCal Connected Season 9, Episode 9: "It's Not Easy Being Green"

“There’s no way physically I could do 72 trees, but I can irrigate these young trees because they are not getting anything,” Billik told SoCal Connected. “I want to make sure they don’t die.”

Unfortunately, Billik’s effort turned out to be for naught. The younger trees were no match for the weekend’s heavy rains, which knocked the saplings to the ground, uprooting some.

“The young ones may have been planted poorly,” she said. “Plus, they shouldn’t be staked any longer. Those stakes are rotten.”

According to a recent study, Los Angeles is failing when it comes to its trees. City leadership, the report said, places little value on its "urban forest," leaving it lacking in visionary management and planning, and well behind in funding to plant and maintain trees and replace those dying from the effects of climate change, drought and insect infestations.

Trees are important not only for beautifying neighborhoods, but cleaning the air, lean the air, reducing heat, combating climate change, and even improving mental health.

The recent report, "First Step, Developing an Urban Forest Management Plan for the City of Los Angeles," written by the Dudek consulting firm, said the city's yearly budget of $27 per tree on public grounds is 140 to 212 percent less than what is spent in New York City, San Francisco and Melbourne, Australia. Los Angeles, the report said, needs an estimated budget increase of $40 to $50 million “to manage the urban forest at a sustainable level." 

A plan is needed quickly, the study said, because trees are particularly vulnerable. The dreaded invasive shot hole borer, an insect the size of a rice grain, has the potential to kill 27 million trees – nearly 40 percent – of the trees in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties. Already, 129 million trees have died in California since 2010 because of climate change, drought and the bark beetle, the study said.

"We could lose probably a million trees," Jerrold Turney, a Los Angeles County plant pathologist told SoCal Connected. "Entire neighborhoods will go from streets that are shaded by tall trees to full sun."

Young Tree Uprooted and Knocked Over From Rain
Young Tree uprooted by January's rains | Courtesy Shelley Billik

Humans haven’t helped. The 20 largest cities in the Los Angeles basin experienced an annual 1.2 percent decrease in tree cover from 2000 to 2009. A USC study, "Urban Forestry & Urban Greening," found that Los Angeles' tree cover is disappearing, from 14 percent to as much as 55 percent in some single-family neighborhoods. 

"What happened is that houses that were maybe 1,000 square-feet on a 5,000-square-foot lot are being turned into a 4,000-square-foot house on a 5,000-square-foot lot," USC architecture associate professor Travis Longcore told SoCal Connected. "With that goes a dramatic decrease in tree cover. So if you were at 21 percent tree cover in a neighborhood at the beginning of the 2000s, you might be down to 11 at the end."

Something must be done, experts say. Los Angeles has no tree czar and, according to the Dudek report, lags way behind where it should be in its urban forestry management. The city, the report said, "does not know enough about its trees," lacks in reliable information about its trees in public parks and street and has no idea what is needed for the future. The city lacks in short and long-term goals for its programs, without even proper computer software to track them, the report said.

That must change, the report said, with city leaders prioritizing trees with adequate funding, staffing, maintenance and goals for the future. Otherwise, Los Angeles faces the potential for a “catastrophic tree canopy cover loss.”  

“If the City is willing to invest now towards creating a more sustainable urban forest, the city’s trees will be healthier, more diverse, and better cared for and the urban forest better equipped to respond to the various environmental threats,” the study said.

The city’s 2018-19 budget, however, allocates just $2 million for tree maintenance and its urban forestry program, along with $4.4 million for tree trimming, or about $40 million below the amount its consultant, Dudek, recommended it needs.

The city does require developers and residents to replace any trees they destroy through construction. Laws require residents to buy new trees for each tree cut down to make room for building. Residents pay $267 per tree, or about a tenth of what developers do.

But if there's no room to plant those new saplings on the same site, the trees are expected to be planted elsewhere. Purchased trees are shipped to a nursery for safekeeping until they receive their final landing spot.

Tag on a city tree
L.A. City tag on one of the trees Billik waters | Courtesy Shelley Billik

Often, they die waiting. 

At a City Council meeting in May 2018, Los Angeles Council Member Paul Krekorian called that situation a “failure,” a result of a lack of any real strategic urban forestry planning.

During that meeting, some council members called for major changes as they adopted a method to replace trees destroyed during construction. Instead of buying actual trees that soon die without a forever home, homeowners and developers can pay a fee to go into a fund that, in theory, will eventually buy trees to be planted somewhere.

Through Jan. 11, the “in lieu” fund as it is called, has collected $115,212. The fund has purchased 86 trees to replace 69 that were removed, said Elena Stern, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Public Works.

The Bureau of Street Services, meanwhile, is also hiring 55 new employees this year “to perform more tree trimmings, remove dead trees, plant new trees and enforce regulations to protect and preserve trees,” Stern said.

“Critical to these new hires, is the creation of a new position, the Citywide Tree Policy Coordinator, who will ensure that the city’s focus on the entire tree canopy is synchronized, from streets to parks, city properties, and private development,” Stern said. 

The coordinator, Stern said, will work with the nonprofit organization, City Plants, to “deliver a road map for a Citywide Urban Forest Management Plan.”

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