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The Green Keepers : In Their ‘Magic Forest,’ a Group of Idealists Nurture and Teach

As soon as you get out of your car at TreePeople’s Mulholland Drive headquarters, you become aware of something strange.

You’re in the middle of Los Angeles, but the air has an unexpected freshness. It smells, in fact, like trees--nearby eucalyptus mingling with wood-chip fragrance underfoot.

Several hundred kinds of trees are growing in this “magic forest” surrounding the offices of TreePeople, an organization responsible for planting more than 1 million trees in Los Angeles.

Here, on a crest of the Santa Monica Mountains, technically in Beverly Hills but on the border of Studio City, you can imagine you’re not in Los Angeles as you wander TreePeople’s nursery, educational center and grounds, on a free scheduled tour or on your own.

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Afterward, you can set off on a hike beyond the 45 acres of Coldwater Canyon Park into the wilder scrubland of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.

For the past 11 years, TreePeople has been caretaker for this city park, property once occupied by a fire station. Yet Terri Roberts, assistant to TreePeople director Andy Lipkis, calls the setting “a well-kept secret.” Despite the large sign identifying it at the corner of Coldwater Canyon and Mulholland Drive, “people have been driving past it for years and never known we’re here,” Roberts says.

In many ways, the TreePeople headquarters feels like a holdover from the ‘60s, complete with brightly colored murals of nature scenes on walls and trash dumpsters. There’s even a landscape, featuring a large tree climbing a wall and spreading its branches across the ceiling, inside the bathroom.

Forest Was There First

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The “magic forest” around the buildings, however, predates the organization. The trees on the site were planted in the 1920s and 1930s by firefighters who patrolled the area on horseback and, later, in Model-T fire trucks.

Today, the site features beehives, a retail nursery, seeding area, potting shed, children’s garden, herb garden, rose garden, two greenhouses, two orchards, recycling bins, a vegetable garden, a compost bin, a community room and several educational displays.

TreePeople’s 17-member staff is mostly young and seems to be idealistic, dedicated to conservationist ideas. Roberts says the organization wants “to let people know they have personal power to create change” in their surroundings.

Much of TreePeople’s work is geared to teaching conservation principles to children, through guest lectures at schools and through the lectures and tours offered on Mulholland Drive.

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On the tours, children learn about composting garbage, meet chickens and a blind opossum named Ophelia, hear how and why to recycle newspaper, glass, plastic and aluminum, and learn about tree-planting. Between 30,000 and 35,000 schoolchildren visit TreePeople each year through the school program, according to Roberts, and many of those children bring their parents back on the weekends.

Inside the main TreePeople Education Center are displays about the organization’s outreach programs. There are signs posted to encourage visitors to get involved: “There is a hidden forest in Los Angeles. There are hidden trees on streets that have none. There are hidden trees in yards that are barren. Hidden in our mind’s eye, they need only to be planted.”

Sprouts for Sprouts

Every child who visits TreePeople plants several tree seeds, and each child takes a 3-month-old seedling home, Lipkis says. “We like everybody who comes here to participate. One of our most important themes is that ‘everybody counts.’ ”

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Lipkis became interested in tree-planting in 1970, when he was 15. He persuaded counselors at a San Bernardino Mountains summer camp he attended to let him break up an unused parking lot and plant seedlings.

Accustomed to being told, “You’re a kid, stay in school, be happy, shut up and things will get better,” Lipkis says, his camp experience--and the resulting mini-forest--led him to form TreePeople, which was incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 1973.

At first, the many seedlings Lipkis raised were housed in pots in friends’ back yards before being planted. Then one day, “I was driving through the hills from the city to the Valley and I discovered this (place),” he says.

Replaced Engine Company

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That was in 1974. At that time, only one engine company made the station its home, and that company was about to move out. Three years of petitioning City Hall led to TreePeople’s lease, which in 1987 was changed from a month-to-month to a three-year basis.

Although its name is not yet a household word, TreePeople received a fair amount of media attention for its pre-1984 Olympics tree-planting campaign, during which 1 million trees were planted in Southern California cities. A primary goal, however, is reforesting local mountains.

“We plant in mountain areas where the trees have been lost due to environmental damage or disease,” Roberts says.

In addition, the group helped save many books after the 1986 Los Angeles Public Library fire, and it sponsors tree-planting expeditions to Africa. A “Citizen Forester” program also helps train city dwellers how to plant and maintain trees on their own streets.

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Visiting Hours

The TreePeople site is open to drop-in visitors who can go on one-hour tours at 11 a.m. on Sundays, or help out in the nursery from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturdays. At other hours, you can visit but you’re on your own.

Trail guides can be purchased for 25 cents at an information booth in the middle of the parking lot, and the park is open from 9 a.m. to dusk. The adjacent conservancy land contains trails up to 5 miles long.

The Sunday tours usually are small and casual, Roberts says, “designed to be a fairly intimate experience for Mom and Dad and the kids out for a Sunday morning get-together.” This Sunday, a tour will set out at the usual time, but there will be no tours on Christmas or New Year’s Day.

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