No Safe Arbor in the City

Times Staff Writer

Eric Oldar doesn't have to go far to find the alarming evidence. He lifts his sizable 6-foot-5 frame out of his office chair, walks 20 paces to the door, steps outside and glumly eyes the culprit: a spindly crape myrtle tree. A whole row of them bordering the Riverside parking lot.

Actually, crape myrtles aren't trees. They are shrubs that grow to look something like trees in miniature.

And that, in short, is the problem. That is what puts a knot in Oldar's jaw and leaves him muttering: "People want quality lives and communities -- they say so. But subtly, all around them, they're losing one of the essentials."

Our grand city trees are disappearing.

The towering trees that provide us cooling shade and save on air conditioning; the trees that give roost to birds; the broad-shouldered trees that soak up the heavy rains before they gather into floodwaters; the trees that cleanse our air and muffle the roar of metropolitan life; the great trees that inspire the poet in our battered urban hearts; the trees that soften the sharp corners of crowded living and connect us to the majesty of nature -- the trees are going away.

In their place: pygmy stands of crape myrtles, or clumps of even smaller bushes. Or just beds of redwood chips scattered atop plastic sheeting to make sure that even weeds don't grow.

"We're eliminating trees," says Oldar with a deep sigh. "We're letting them become trivialized; without really paying attention, we're letting them disappear."

Oldar is a forester and a pioneer in California's tiny urban forestry program, which is tucked away with firefighters in the state Department of Forestry. He has devoted most of his 27-year career to promoting urban forests, a concept that makes all the sense in the world if we think about it, which, let's agree, not many of us do. How many of us were even aware that Sunday was Arbor Day in California, the day for celebrating and planting trees?

In our mind's eye, if not in reality, cities of the United States are made glorious by their trees, and always have been. In the imagination of entrepreneurs, the city groves are a vast, untapped and profitable stock of spectacular hardwoods and softwoods for furniture, floors and home architectural details.

In truth, though, our cities are turning from green into gray -- at an alarming rate and with surprisingly costly consequences:

* According to American Forests, the nation's oldest citizen conservation organization and self-proclaimed "voice of the trees," the nation's urban areas as defined by the Census Bureau have lost 21% of their tree cover in the last decade. Viewed over longer time spans, the news is even worse. For instance, Washington, a city renowned for its blossoming cherry trees, has sacrificed 60% of its heavy tree canopy in the last generation.

* Even before the recent wildfires, San Diego and surrounding communities had lost 27% of their green canopy in less than 20 years. In an extensive study using satellite imagery, scientists at American Forests calculated that the trend, if unchecked, could cost taxpayers $164 million to manage future storm-water runoff. Added pollution that trees would otherwise absorb could make it more difficult for the region to attain clean-air standards.

* A joint study by state and federal forestry agencies determined that California cities have about 177 million trees and 242 million empty planting sites. The potential savings is huge. Three good trees planted around your house can reduce air-conditioning costs 20% or more.

* In a project sponsored by NASA, meteorologists determined that clearing trees had made temperatures in Atlanta 5 to 8 degrees higher than in outlying areas. This has created an urban "heat island" that generates increasingly violent thunderstorms over the city and its suburbs, contributing to flooding.

* And the topper: Incalculable millions are spent to process valuable tons of trees as common garbage. According to studies by the U.S. Forest Service and the International Society of Arboriculture, more potentially usable wood fiber is produced in urban areas each year than is harvested from U.S. national forests -- much of it sent into an already overburdened waste stream.

The numbers grow mind-numbing. Potential energy savings run into the billions of dollars if we would only shade ourselves under more trees -- $3.6 billion annually in California alone, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The savings from needless flood control is even greater. And global warming? Trees sequester epic amounts of carbon, which is the culprit in making our atmosphere a heat-trapping greenhouse. In other words, it's not just the size of the car we drive but the number of trees we plant that may shape tomorrow's weather.

To visit Oldar's cluttered, 10-by-12 office near the 91 Freeway is to tumble down a rabbit hole. The simple logic behind trees in our cities is inarguable; so too are the mindless forces that work against them.

That makes Oldar a man of divided spirits. What other do-gooder state bureaucrat can so easily describe a painless, profitable, easily grasped solution for a broad civic problem? This is not poverty or racial prejudice or traffic congestion -- troubles that seem to defy our capacity to envision workable solutions. Here, we can all save money and make daily life quieter, more beautiful, indeed more natural, for hardly any effort at all. Oldar's round face seems to light up. He is an unstoppable optimist.

More than 80 years ago, Helen Hoyt put it this way in her poem "Ellis Park":

I take your trees, And your breeze, Your greenness, Your cleanness, Some of your shade, some of your sky, Some of your calm as I go by....

But then Oldar outlines the maddening obstacles in the path of shady, greener cities -- all of them described in reports, videos, pamphlets, satellite photos and books that he piles up in a truly scary-large stack almost as high as his desk. Most of these documents contain some version of the old buck-passing excuse: I don't know, I don't care, it's not my responsibility. Oldar sags in his chair with an expression of impossibility on his face, a born-again pessimist.

For what it's worth, California is a national leader in the campaign to save city trees. The state's 1978 law on the subject says this: "Trees serve as a vital resource in the urban environment and as an important psychological link with nature for the urban dweller. Trees are a valuable economic asset ... play an important role in energy conservation ... reduce air pollution ... increase property values ... attract business...." And so forth.

Here and there -- and it's pretty obvious where: Beverly Hills, San Marino, Claremont to name three -- individual communities continue to promote and protect their tree-scapes.

Other municipalities are awakening. San Diego has undertaken a 20-year replanting program. In the last few years, the city of Los Angeles has begun planting more curbside trees than it cuts down, and just last week announced that a $1-million federal-state transportation grant would be used to plant 3,500 more trees -- utilizing crape myrtles only when planting space demands it.

"We're planting trees greater than 40 feet whenever possible. It is extremely important for our environment to have a healthy urban forest of large-canopy trees," says Melinda Bartlett of the Los Angeles Environmental Affairs Department.

Elsewhere, though, trees tend to occupy far lower rungs of the municipal priority list, notwithstanding common sense or the law.

In Oldar's idealized vision of California's future, the challenge is not quite as simple as planting trees. But almost. It must be the right tree in the proper place -- no single-species urban forest monocultures that are prone to attacks like Dutch elm disease or the insect assault that has killed 30,000 eucalyptus trees in Los Angeles in the last 18 months. Plantings need to be spaced out so that entire neighborhoods of trees don't reach maturity and begin to die off at once, as is happening now in post-World War II subdivisions.

Municipal leaders and those higher up the governmental organizational chain must update master plans and ordinances to recognize the manifold value of trees, Oldar continues. Governments need to jump-start the budding enterprise of utilizing -- and bringing to market -- the wondrous woods produced by urban trees as they reach maturity and need to be replaced.

One example: Acacia trees by the hundreds, or even thousands, are chopped up and dispatched to California landfills at who-knows-what expense to municipal governments. It is not that different from city councils' hiring crews to "dispose" of underground oil reserves by pumping them into sewers. In Hawaii, by contrast, the sister tree to California's acacia is the imperiled koa, whose wood, increasingly rare, fetches from $17.50 to $50 per board foot, which is a chunk of tree smaller than a breadboard, only 12 inches square and 1 inch thick.

From a briefcase under his desk, Oldar produces samples of 35 other exotic and valuable woods that are common hereabouts and now burdening landfills instead of being used for furniture, home building or even for fuel to generate energy.

Stephen M. Bratkovich, a forester with the U.S. Forest Service in St. Paul, Minn., has drawn from published studies to calculate that cities produce about 3.8 billion board feet of usable logs each year due to natural mortality, disease, storm blow-downs and development -- more wood than harvested from all of the country's 147 million acres of national forestlands.

Much of it, probably most, is sent to landfills or turned into low-value products like wood chips. Bratkovich has calculated that if all these logs were sawed into 12-inch-wide boards and laid end to end, they would make 120 round-trip paths from Los Angeles to New York.

Hoping to turn the situation around in California, the state now grubstakes entrepreneurs to try their hand at salvaging urban woods. The state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection sponsors an annual four-day Urban Forestry Academy for municipal officials. The state helps support a vast website, www.ufei.org, that guides consumers and government officials in what kind of trees to plant and, potentially, where the resulting wood can be sold and purchased. Last autumn, the group American Forests urged every city to establish the goal of increasing its tree canopy by 10%.

Still, California remains headed down what Oldar calls "an insidious slope": Great shade trees are vanishing, leaving pygmy urban forests and gray-scapes.

Why?

Oldar rips into the topic with the zeal of a chainsaw: Municipal governments manage trees but have no incentive or requirement to promote energy conservation, storm-water management or pollution abatement. That's the chore of other agencies.

On the other hand, local governments are required by law to reduce the volume of waste they send to landfills. They are charged with repairing sidewalks and curbs damaged by tree roots. As a consequence, trees have become a costly nuisance, not an asset to local officials. Who can blame them for the current trend to plant smaller shrubs, like the crape myrtle?

As for the potential value of wasted lumber, cities consider this merely theoretical, if they consider it at all. The hidebound lumber distribution system in the U.S. is dominated by giant chain operations that have little interest in sundry lots of variety woods produced in urban forests.

Meanwhile, developers, trying to maximize densities, also are planting bushes instead of trees. Ditto homeowners with a mind to expand their houses to the property lines. Thus, the crape myrtle, Lagerstroemia indica, is now the most popular tree in urban California -- an idea that strikes Oldar like a thumb in the eye.

"I call them crap myrtles," he grumbles. "They have their place, but should we get carried away and say this is the only tree? What does that tell us about the future?"

Standing outside his office, he surveys the skinny row of 12-foot-tall myrtles. "See any signs of birds there? Any nests?" He pivots 180 degrees and looks heavenward to the top of a shapely sycamore, where a large nest is silhouetted against the sky. In the summer, these trees would tell another important story -- that the crape myrtles generate hardly enough shade to cover the bonnet of a compact car while one lone sycamore shelters the forestry department offices all afternoon.

Added up block by block, the consequences can be startling. In the various studies of tree cover in Atlanta, scientists measured the downtown air temperature at 86 degrees, while comparative surface temperatures were 85 to 90 degrees in the shade of trees and 127 to 129 in direct sun. In one seven-house development built by Atlanta's Habitat for Humanity, scientists determined that homeowners would save $951 in energy and $268 in storm drainage charges each year if adequate trees were planted and allowed to mature.

Meanwhile, Oldar says, municipal and regional park departments are increasingly preoccupied with recreational developments -- tennis courts, softball fields, recreation centers and the like, not trees.

These days, even homeowners cannot be counted on to keep their neighborhoods green -- and the truth is that private citizens shoulder much of the burden as urban foresters. In Los Angeles, the city government owns 1.5 million to 2 million trees, while businesses and homeowners are responsible for perhaps 10 million.

And while many citizens are happy to tell pollsters all the virtues of tree-lined streets, in practice a good many favor trees everywhere but on their own property, worried about storm damage or tree roots clogging their pipes or squirrels tangling with their house cats or the mess of leaves in autumn. More and more, they turn over yardwork to gardeners who are untrained in tree care.

"I have one of the few homes on my block with any substantial number of trees left," Oldar sadly concedes about his neighborhood in Ontario.

In arid climates like Southern California, the fresh water necessary for all types of vegetation is increasingly part of the civic conversation, or should be. In this, trees generally fare well -- with many varieties requiring only about one-third the water of a lawn, and then, in turn, providing shade that conserves soil moisture for other plants.

Asked to look ahead, Oldar, the father of two, remains a man divided. It is entirely plausible, he says, for a common-sense turnabout. Once Californians begin to recognize what is happening, it would take only reasonable effort to increase the shade-tree canopy to 25% or 30% of our residential landscape.

"That's realistic, and that's what I'd like to see," he says. "What I fear is the mind-set of doing nothing, that people won't appreciate trees generally."

In that case, trees may wind up like covered bridges, a quaint part of America's past. Within a generation, perhaps only 6% of our cities will be shaded by trees -- with the corresponding reduction in the quality of our lives.

"That," Oldar says quietly, "is what I fear for my kids. They'll wake up in the future and wonder: Where did it all go?"

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