California’s Stressed Out Trees

CA ReLeaf to the Rescue

California’s trees have been on my mind. Over the past few years I have been watching them slowly die. Many are dying of thirst — the trees right outside our door — often in our own yards, in the sidewalk medians, along our roadways, throughout our parks. If you look, it won’t take long to see what I mean. The drought has taken its toll and so many beauties are just giving up. With 65 million dead trees in California’s forests alone, even Senator Dianne Feinstein and Governor Jerry Brown acknowledge there is a tree mortality crisis.

Paradoxically, in wet years urban trees grow in spite of constant stress: in spite of the dogs that pee on their trunks, the hardscape too close to their root collar, the truck that mamed a limb, the inartful trimming by an untrained worker who didn’t stop to use their eyes. You know — those trees growing in spite of the terrible hack job.

Yes, it is good that we put the brakes on mindless irrigation and cut back our water consumption ….but it is a shame this comes at the expense of our urban tree canopy! Trees that took a generation or more to grow need a “water waiver.” Young trees need extra care. It is possible to conserve water yet irrigate our trees too. It is ok to give stressed trees a long, slow drink to help them survive this historic drought.

Of all the problems we are coping with, I worry this is way down on the priority list. Where is the despair or urgency? If we stop to think about the consequences of statewide tree dieback — whether due to neglect, drought, disease, fire, or abuse… it is pretty dire. The dollar valuation loss of our mature trees is incalculable and they can’t be replaced in our lifetime.

As a lonely tree lover I usually feel like an outlier. So I went looking for “my people” and found them in Los Angeles at the 2016 California Urban and Community Forests Conference this summer. The theme was. The Power of Trees: Building Resilient Communities. It was presented by California ReLeaf, a non-profit based in Sacramento which works statewide to promote the protection of our environment by planting trees. California ReLeaf gathered two day’s worth of tree experts to share what was going on behind the scenes to protect our urban forests and wilderness.

Who’s who in the tree world was there: experts from Cal Fire and West Coast Arborists to academics and documentary filmmakers, the. US Forest Service, LA Conservation Corp, scientists, nonprofit groups such as TreePeople and Latino Outdoors…. Despite the current biosecurity threat against our urban and rural forests — people are connecting the dots between arboriculture and our overall well being.

The most passionate speaker of the conference was Andy Lipkis, Founder and President of TreePeople, which he launched in 1973 by taking the initiative to plant trees in LA himself. Since then, TreePeople has grown to become one of the most impactful environmental nonprofits in the state. Lipkis and his team has successfully rallied citizen participation with diverse programs to protect and replenish Los Angeles regional urban street canopy. They even post pictures on Instagram of damaged trees. See #toppedtreewatch.

But my big take away from Lipkis’s speech was California’s trees are also suffering from “Death by Bureaucracy”. Yes — there are environmental agencies well aware of California’s tree crisis, elected officials who talk the talk, foundations with good intentions, academics studying the issues and gathering crucial data, nonprofits with the best of intentions, software engineers counting trees. But too many are working in silos and there is not enough coordination. Action is painfully slow. The drought has made this a dire problem. We need all hands on deck working together to save trees of today and plan for the future by replacing the trees that are dead. We need a marketing blitz to encourage the public to wake up and do more. Bureaucracy is a word trees don’t understand.

A statewide mandate for protecting our urban forests is obvious but outside this conference is there a sense of urgency within local governments and communities? California needs a green light from all the stakeholders to drive this initiative forward or we will be walking over countless empty tree wells in the sidewalks and forget what it was like when thriving trees once lived there .

And of course, there needs to be more money pumped into the hands of people doing this hard work — money from the government on all levels, money from private foundations, money from citizen donations, in-kind donations from tree nurseries and experts. The good news is there is a huge return on a community’s investment when trees are planted and maintained.

Here is a refresher — 10 essential facts about trees:

  1. Trees clean the air by absorbing carbon dioxide and produce oxygen.
  2. Tree shade cool buildings. It can reduce our energy bills by 20 — 50% when planted in the right place by our property.
  3. Tree foliage muffle noise pollution in our loud urban landscape.
  4. Trees helps mitigate the harmful heat Island effect caused by big treeless zones of concrete and asphalt which absorbs heat.
  5. Tree roots help purify the watershed, absorb urban runoff and control erosion.
  6. Trees can increase property values by up to 20%.
  7. Trees provide crucial habitat and food for birds and wildlife.
  8. Some trees provide food for us too.
  9. Planting trees is a logical, essential way to help fight climate change. A minimal investment reaps huge rewards.
  10. Trees make us feel better. Green cities = good mental health.

As for water, are we so hung up on conservation that we lose sight of what is lost when trees die of neglect? If we lose trees — we lose a lot of water too!!! When it rains, tree roots and the earth around them help capture and absorb the extra ground water which otherwise heads to storm drains and lost. That alone is reason to drag out a few hoses, string them together and water the thirsty trees in front of our home or business. Grey water programs could be expanded too — of course.

I was reminded that California ReLeaf’s mission is to “empower grassroots efforts and build strategic partnerships that preserve, protect and enhance California’s urban and forest communities.” Who can argue with that. Without public street trees, park trees, privately owned trees — our cities will be a hot, hollow and soulless places to work and live. Imagine California without its wooded wilderness. The ecosystem would collapse.

Our heritage trees got here one of two ways — mother nature at work or forward thinking people dug holes and planted seeds or saplings. Nature is stressed so we have to help out. We will miss the shade when it’s gone.

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