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Rooting for trees

Environmental IssuesNatural ResourcesAgricultureBusinessChristmasGlobal WarmingLifestyle and Leisure

What a lousy time to be harping about how there aren't enough trees in the world.

Can't I see that there are trees everywhere? They're for sale by the millions in the sap-scented faux forests that spring up in light-strung parking lots. They're lashed onto cars like dead whitetail deer. They're swagged in Christmas tinsel and standing in pots in mall entrances and hotel lobbies and office cafeterias.

And come Jan. 2, they're destined for trash bins and landfills -- as dead as Mike Gravel's candidacy will be a day later, at the Iowa caucuses. That's exactly why it's time to talk trees.

Of course Homo sapiens love trees -- we used to live in them. Maybe that's why we're so ferociously emotional about them. When the city of Amsterdam set out this month to chop down the aging, ailing chestnut tree Anne Frank looked out on from her hiding place, tree lovers and history lovers went to court to save it -- and have stopped the saws so far.

A Nevada man could get 35 years in the slammer for killing hundreds of trees because they blocked his view of the neon galaxy known as the Vegas Strip. At least he was after the view; in 1988, a Connecticut man told police that he chopped down his neighbor's 84-year-old oak for better satellite TV reception: "Now I can get the Disney Channel."

Some years back, San Marino instituted tree-protection rules after new Chinese residents began chopping down huge old trees, in some cases because they violated feng shui rules. And a year ago, hearts broke across L.A. when the city said "no more" to fan palms on city property, preferring "greener" native trees.

Trees saved us once, when we had to live out of the reach of hungry creatures, and they might rescue our sorry butts again, on a planetary scale. Last weekend, the U.N. global warming meeting in Bali wound up agreeing to consider paying billions to countries not to whack their rain forests. Call it green-mail, but call it money well spent, because clear-cutting of rain forests accounts for about 20% of global warming.

As it turns out, there's no reason to be militantly anti-"fir" or pro-"fir" either. Christmas trees don't count for much in the great race to head off global extinction. A crop that's grown like cabbages can't be an equivalent player to a stand of old sycamores. Sure, it's a tree -- and de facto good -- but there's the cutting and the hauling and the throwing in the trash.

And buying live trees hasn't helped much. Andy Lipkis, the laudable founder of TreePeople, says that two weeks indoors can kill a pine tree; they're often too pot-bound to survive anyway; and their mortality rate even after they get planted is so high cities have given up their transplant programs altogether. Last autumn, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa launched his promised arboreal version of the Million Man March -- a million trees in Los Angeles in 10 years.

A million new trees was a great idea even back when TreePeople suggested it during the 1984 Olympics. It is the biggest, easiest and cheapest way to make the city more habitable, more water- and people-friendly, and it would do more to beautify the place than all the Botox in Beverly Hills.

How's the mayor's version going? Hard to tell. To announce a big-number target is to risk making it about the numbers, not the trees. The Million Man March ended up in wrangling over who did the counting and how and not so much about the point of the march. The same could happen with the million tree program; do you count as "planted" the free seedlings carted off from civic festivities and left to die on kitchen tables or condo balconies, as my colleague, David Zahniser reported?

Maybe seeing the numbers would help: An electronic tote board could engage people's competitiveness, but it should also count backward. Roll it back for the thousands of trees lost in the Griffith Park fire, and for the shriveling seedlings that cities insist on sticking in concrete pens along sidewalks.

A new PBS documentary quotes Andrew Jackson asking Congress to let him clear Indians off the frontier: "What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms ... ?"

So here I am, waving my hand like Hermione Granger in potions class, voting yes, yes, I would prefer it!

How many is a million trees? One for every four Angelenos. If we all convene our poker pals, our book groups, our golf foursomes, our carpool or string quartet and plant one tree, we'll have the million.

Then we can get down to the big stuff. Like the Million Pothole March. Like the Million Tree March, it'd be BYOS -- Bring Your Own Shovel.

patt.morrison@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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