Who keeps Huntington Beach green? The Tree Society

Jean Nagy loves trees. Take a drive through Huntington Beach and many of the trees you'll see are there because of her efforts.

Nagy, a Huntington Beach resident for about 30 years, has spent decades bustling about at City Council meetings and otherwise mobilizing the community for beautification efforts.

She started the nonprofit Huntington Beach Tree Society in 1998 to take the lead in those efforts.

Relying on public donations and state grants, the tree society has worked with local government to develop parkland and other city properties, particularly Central Park.

Nagy, 76, said the group has taken on so many projects over the years that she can't even remember the number.

Mayor Barbara Delgleize said the group has been fundamental to maintaining greenery in the city.

"Jean is vigilant with planting and caring for trees," Delgleize said. "She's tenacious and doesn't believe in no. I don't know how cities operate without people like [Jean]. She has a great team."

Nagy said members of the tree society — who number about a dozen at any particular time — have planted more than 7,000 trees and thousands of native California plants in city parks and schools and along city roads, but the group has made its most lasting mark in Central Park, heading several restoration projects including the Urban Forest, Norma Gibbs Butterfly Park and the Secret Garden.

Gibbs park, known for its monarch population, was devoid of the migrating species for many years after the trees and vegetation that they rely on deteriorated.

Since 2007, Leslie Gilson and other society members have worked hard to make the park more suitable for the butterflies, including planting milkweed, a plant that the monarchs like to feed on.

One ongoing project is the 20-acre parcel of land in south Central Park called the Urban Forest, at 6711 Ellis Ave.

Nagy said that before she got her hands on the park in 2001, it was filled with overgrown brush amid which homeless people had set up camp. She and club members Shirley Knopf and Annie Anderson keep tending to it in hopes of total restoration.

Delgleize said what has developed is a "slice of heaven" that many in the city don't even know exists.

The crew planted native vegetation like oak trees, coastal sage scrub and buckwheat along the park trails.

Bordered by the Huntington Central Park Equestrian Center and nearby neighborhoods, the park's soil is dappled with hoof imprints and bike tire impressions.

Over 100 tons of boulders are strewn about the edges of the trails. The boulders came from the now-defunct Lion Country Safari park in Irvine, where visitors could drive through an Africanesque landscape in close proximity to lions, giraffes and other familiar African wildlife. The park was closed more than 30 years ago, and Nagy worked for years to secure the boulders.

The Urban Forest, she says, is an ode to the community.

Nagy enlists help from Eagle and Girl Scouts and high school students from Santa Ana, Huntington Beach and Garden Grove. The kids have built wooden steps and stacked rock walls that encompass the newly planted vegetation in the park.

Nagy hopes that she can one day use some of the undeveloped portion of the area to establish a campground where kids can experience the outdoors.

The tree society has several other projects in Central Park, including the Secret Garden, a small plot behind the Huntington Beach Public Library.

Members Steve and Shari Engel, along with longtime member Juana Mueller, have been working over the past two years to improve the garden, which was created in 1992 to demonstrate to local residents the best plants to put in their yards. Shari Engel said the park had become overgrown and was nearly impossible to walk through.

Now, paths have been cleared and lined with granite rock for easy navigation by visitors.

Shari Engel said she hopes that one day the Secret Garden will be used as a wedding spot.

The tree society has for about 10 years been working to develop an area on Overlook Drive, near Garfield Avenue, that sits on a cliff above the Bolsa Chica wetlands.

When Nagy, Knopf and Anderson came across the site, they saw nothing but a tangle of dead plants, but they knew the area had potential because of its sweeping view of the wetlands.

The group worked hard to clear out the dead foliage and weeds, replacing them with native plants like coastal sage scrub, which promotes a good environment for birds.

The park is currently a favorite visiting spot for people in the surrounding neighborhoods.

Nagy, who is always planning something new, hopes to build a path leading from the Urban Forest, through Overlook and all the way down to the beach.

Society members have also worked with the city to renovate Helme Park, adding flowers and trees. In March, the group held an Arbor Day event at the park. Students from Perry Elementary School planted five trees there.

The Huntington Beach Tree Society also helps renovate greenery on school campuses.

In 2002, the group planted 65 trees at Oak View Elementary School with the help of students.

Nagy said she specifically chose to plant Canary Island pines at the school to help override the strong trash scent from the Rainbow Environmental Services site near the school.

Currently, Knopf is working to renovate Golden View Elementary School's farm, giving it a "green facelift."

Working with children is an important component of the society's mission. Nagy said she hopes to instill a love in the children for the environment and the city.

"We always try to connect every tree we plant in the ground with a child," Nagy said.

People can donate to the society by going to hbtrees.org/donate/.

benjamin.brazil@latimes.com

Twitter: @benbrazilpilot

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