LA is losing its trees. While elected officials talk about the importance of the urban forest and pay lip service to sustainability, we're rapidly losing one of our most valuable resources. Trees are crucial to keeping urban temperatures down, recharging our underground aquifers, and keeping our air clean. But LA’s urban forest is facing unprecedented threats from many different sources. A 2017 report from Tree People states plainly just how serious the threat is….
The urgency of protecting the urban forest has risen sharply as drought, pests, disease, climate impacts and budget cuts lead to rapidly rising tree mortality. In the coastal Southern California region, which includes much of Los Angeles County, the US Forest Service estimates that 33.5 percent of trees are at risk of dying from just one pest: the polyphagous shot hole borer. In the greater Southern California area, that number rises to 38 percent, or 27 million trees, and the estimated cost of removing and replacing those trees is $36 billion. Threats to mortality extend beyond this one pest.
Yes, there are many threats other than the shot hole borer. The Los Angeles Unified School District plans to cut down 48 trees at Grant High School as part of a campus upgrade. Ninety mature trees will be felled as part of a makeover of the Sportsmen's Lodge. Harvard-Westlake School plans to remove scores of trees as part of its plan to turn the former Weddington Golf Course into an athletic facility. And Universal Studios continues to bulldoze hundreds of trees, including protected native species, in the course of its years-long expansion plan. While the plans for most of these projects talk about planting replacement trees, there are usually few specifics and little oversight. It came to light recently that replacement trees paid for by developers were sitting in a City storage facility for so long that they were no longer viable.
Beyond large projects like these, our communities are losing tree canopy and green space as houses grow bigger and bigger. A 2017 study from USC shows that from 2000 to 2009 tree cover decreased an average of 13.6% in neighborhoods across LA County just because people are building larger homes. And many of our trees die simply from poor care or neglect. In LA there have been numerous complaints that crews hired by the City for pruning are too aggressive and end up doing more harm than good. A number of trees die each year because no one takes the time to water them. Many cities in LA County have plans and policies in place to maintain their urban forest, but too often there's no funding to support them. Plans are meaningless if they just sit on a shelf collecting dust.
So what do cities need to do? The steps are pretty straightforward:
1. Complete a comprehensive tree inventory.
2. Create an Urban Forest Management Plan.
3. Develop agencies with the personnel and the funding to execute the plan.
Of course, the obvious problem is the lack of funding. And this is tied to an even deeper problem. Lack of will. Politicians often talk about the importance of our urban forest, but rarely take any meaningful action to protect it. And as individuals we generally take trees for granted. We may think they look nice, and on hot days we're glad to have their shade, but few of us are actively engaged in advocating for trees or caring for them.
If we don't take action, we'll all pay the price. The region will keep getting hotter, water will grow more scarce, and the air we breathe will become dirtier. The recent drought has ended, but it may have been just a taste of what's in store for us. If we don't start caring for our urban forest, LA could get a whole lot harder to live in.
If you want to get involved, there are groups that you can join to take action.
Angelenos for Trees