LA Could Become Treeless! … And We Don’t Have a Plan!

WHY THIS MATTERS TO YOU-Eric Garcetti wants to be seen as the greenest Mayor in the nation.

He often portrays Los Angeles as a city on the cutting edge when he talks about environmental issues, and he's made many claims about his administration's accomplishments in this area. In some cases, Garcetti has shown leadership, but in others his aspirations don't match up with his actions. Despite repeated assertions that LA is moving people away from cars and onto transit, the MTA's ridership stats continue to decline. And by now everybody's heard about the chaotic rollout of the City's recycling program. 

LA's urban forest is another case where the City doesn't live up to the hype. The Mayor has repeatedly claimed that LA is breaking new ground when it comes to sustainability, but in this crucial area we're facing a serious crisis. Trees are crucial to the City's continued viability. According to the Governor's Office of Planning and Research (OPR), our urban forests are critical to our economic well-being and overall quality of life. The OPR web page lists vital functions that trees perform: 

  • removing carbon from the atmosphere
  • support the physical and mental health of residents
  • reducing energy use
  • improving air quality
  • protecting water quality
  • providing habitat for wildlife 

We need trees. But LA's urban forest has been in decline for years and is facing a growing number of threats. A 2017 paper from USC shows that increased home size and hardscape has been a leading cause of decreased urban forest cover in LA. Construction of new development and new infrastructure have also taken a toll, as well as efforts to repair sidewalks. In these cases, the City has policies that require tree replacements, but they haven't been working out so well. New trees are purchased, but because the Urban Forestry Department (UFD) has no staff for planting, scores of trees have been sitting in storage for extended periods. Some of them are no longer viable. There was hope that in the next fiscal year money would be made available to hire at least one crew for UFD, but when the Mayor presented his new budget, those funds were nowhere to be found. 

So now there's a new idea on the table. The City Council is getting ready to vote on an ordinance that would charge developers an in-lieu fee for tree replacement. Instead of consigning trees to storage areas where they sat until they died, the fees collected would pay for the purchase of new trees, as well as planting and watering for three years. At first glance, this may look like a reasonable solution, but it's not. This is a quick fix designed to address just one aspect of the larger problem, which is the ongoing decline of our urban forest. The proposed ordinance doesn't say anything about crucial issues like the types of trees to be planted, where they're going to go, or how to monitor the success of the program. 

A number of people have come out against the ordinance. Jacky Surber is Past President of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers, Greater LA District, and holds a degree in Environmental Studies from UCSB. She says, "The City lacks data to make an educated decision on the in-lieu fee. LA has not yet conducted any of the following: a tree inventory, canopy cover calculation, or a tree species biodiversity assessment. Additionally, their calculation of what the fee should be is inherently flawed since it is based on caring for a newly planted tree for 3 years, yet most experts agree that three years is not enough, particularly in a drought. Without a proper maintenance budget in place it is likely that many of the new trees will die, leading to a continued rapid decline in LA's leafy canopy." 

Diana Zogran has worked in ecological land care for over 25 years. She holds a degree in Environmental Biology and Horticulture Science from the University of Florida as well as multiple certificates in various related disciplines. Zogran sees the replacement tree in-lieu fee proposal as one more example of the City's failure to address the deep challenges facing our urban forest. “If in-lieu fees only support a single generation of trees as proposed by this ordinance, net canopy loss will occur over the long term. This is especially the case for trees planted in horticultural situations (e.g., roadsides or parks), which typically have a relatively short life span. If we are serious about facing the challenges of climate, we need to protect and restore our urban forest. To do that, we need an up-to-date tree inventory. We need tree canopy goals. We need a comprehensive plan.” 

Does LA have plan? Well, sort of. In 2015, Garcetti released his Sustainable City pLAn. In the letter he wrote to introduce it, the Mayor said, "This pLAn is a comprehensive and actionable directive that will produce meaningful results" and that it would help the City "move toward a truly sustainable future." So, considering how important our urban forest is to achieving sustainability, what does the document have to say about it? Not much. The Sustainable City pLAn runs over a hundred pages, but references to trees are scarce, and there's only one action item focused just on trees. Under the heading Urban Ecosystem, the list of near term outcomes for 2017 includes this sentence: 

"Initiate tree and tree-canopy registry to document LA’s urban forest to guide tree planting investments."

So how far have we gotten on this? All I could find on the City's many web sites was a couple of color-coded satellite maps on Navigate LA. They don't include any information about the number, the species, or the health of the trees. On the next page of the pLAn, under Strategies & Priority Initiatives, it says the City will "complete tree and tree-canopy registry..." but doesn't say when that will happen.  

Really, there is no plan for LA's urban forest. To create one, we first have to gather the data, assess the challenges, develop well-defined goals, and set up a system for monitoring progress. None of that has happened. And none of that will happen as long as we keep messing around with stopgap measures like the in-lieu fee ordinance. It's not a solution. It's just a quick fix. 

On Tuesday, May 15, the City Council will vote on the ordinance requiring in-lieu fees for tree replacement. The motion includes a request that the Board of Public Works report on their progress in creating a comprehensive plan, but it's nothing more than a request. There's no guarantee the plan will ever materialize. And we can't keep waiting. Our tree canopy is shrinking. Our city is getting hotter. Our air is getting dirtier.   

If you agree that the City Council needs to dump the ordinance and develop a plan, call your rep and let them know. 

Here’s a link to the City Council Directory. And then call Mayor Garcetti and tell him the same. If he's going to claim to be a leader on environmental issues, he needs to back his talk up with action. 

Mayor Garcetti's Office: 213 978-0600.


(Casey Maddren writes about Los Angeles at his blog The Horizon and the Skyline.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.