Pretty Shady Bunch

TreePeople finds a private solution to air pollution.


In 1970, 15-year-old Andy Lipkis attended summer camp in Southern California's San Bernardino Mountains. "Yours may be the last generation to enjoy this forest," a visiting naturalist told him."Within 30 years, smog will have killed most of these trees."

Andy looked down into the valley at the gray smog and thought of it choking the life out of the forest. "Is there anything we can do about it?" he asked.

"Well, we could replace the dying trees with ones that will grow in spite of the smog," said the naturalist. "But you can't replant an entire forest."

Disturbed by the naturalist's prediction, Andy and his friends decided to plant some smog-tolerant trees around their campgrounds. For most of the campers, that was the end of their involvement with reforestation. But for Andy Lipkis, it was just the beginning. He read everything he could about forestry and the environment. And for three years he tried and failed to convince politicians and business people to do something to solve the environmental problems plaguing Southern California.

Finally, in 1973, he heard that the state forestry service was going to plow under 20,000 pine seedlings. Lipkis convinced the directors of 20 summer camps to join with him in planting the seedlings to replace the trees killed by pollution. Then he called the state forestry service to explain his proposal and ask for the seedlings.

"Fine," said the voice on the other end. "Send us $600 by the end of next week, and you can have them."

Lipkis complained that he couldn't raise the money that quickly, but the voice on the other end explained that the seedbeds had to be cleared for a new crop.

After several futile fund-raising calls, Lipkis contacted the Los Angeles Times. Later that day, a Times reporter called to say that the forestry division had agreed to stop plowing the seedlings under.

When the state delivered the surviving 8,000 trees to Lipkis, he and his volunteers planted them throughout Southern California. In the next 16 years, TreePeople, as the group came to be known, grew and matured like the seedlings it planted. Today, it has a 19 employees and a $860,000 annual budget, raised entirely from private sources. In addition, the group receives $1.5 million each year in nonmonetary contributions, such as gardening tools and seeds.

TreePeople manages a 45-acre park in Coldwater Canyon above Beverly Hills, takes 50,000 children each year through a program that teaches them about dangers to the environment, plants 10,000 seedlings annually in the mountains around Los Angeles and another 1,000 in the city, and since 1984 has rescued more than 80,000 surplus fruit trees and delivered them to low-income families. In 1986, 5,000 fruit trees were flown to development projects in Ethiopia and Kenya.

TreePeople may be best known for its successful efforts to plant a million trees in Los Angeles for the 1984 Olympics. In 1980, says Lipkis, "The city planning department called and said, 'We've just computed that we need a million new trees to help clean up the air. Could you help us? It looks like it'll cost us $20 million and take 20 years.'"

But Lipkis knew better. "We told them that with volunteers we could do it in time for the Olympics, at 1 percent of the cost, none of which would be taxpayers' money," he recalls. TreePeople planted the final tree just four days before the opening ceremonies began. Planted largely on private land, most of the trees survived. Experts predict that when they reach 20 years of age they will filter 200 tons of pollutants daily from the air.

As word of TreePeople's success spread, other groups began calling for advice about reforestation. TreePeople has been the catalyst for tree-planting efforts across the United States and in foreign countries such as Australia, Ireland, and Great Britain.

The group doesn't rest on its laurels, however. TreePeople has now joined with the American Forestry Association to plant 100 million trees across the United States. Closer to home, they are planting an additional 5 million trees in Los Angeles. Lipkis plans to plant as many as possible on private land, because he has discovered that private owners are more likely to give the trees the care they need. "You can't plant them on public land and expect them to survive," he explains.

Twenty years of activism have reaffirmed Lipkis's belief that individuals can make a difference. "Traditionally, most environmental organizations' tack has been politics. The way to solve the problem is legislate," Lipkis explains. "That hasn't really empowered people." But people "don't have to wait for legislation," he urges. "They don't have to wait for major changes to happen. They can bring about major changes just by taking small steps."

Charles Oliver is editorial assistant and staff writer at REASON.