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City Hall’s Proposed Budget Fails to Reflect the Benefits of Investing in Our Urban Forest

GUEST WORDS--A year-round fire season, excessive heat, drought, flooding and mudslides are the new normal in Los Angeles. 

Dire warnings have been issued by the UN Climate Chief about the need to reverse CO2 emissions within 12 years otherwise the damage will be irreversible.   We should pause and ask — why aren’t the benefits of trees being aggressively championed by our City officials?  

Trees reduce air and water pollution, lower surface and air temperatures, soak up stormwater run- off and most importantly they pull carbon out of the atmosphere.  Trees provide much needed shade to a broiling city.  And they provide social and economic benefits such as increased property values and better health.  The US Forest Service has found that for every dollar spent on trees there is $5.82 returned in benefits every single year.  Trees are a simple cost-effective tool in the fight to reverse climate change.

Last year the environmental firm Dudek published a report on Los Angeles’ urban tree policy.  The Dudek Report found that Los Angeles scored a 2 out of a potential 109 points in its urban forest sustainability practices.  A two.  We scored a two.  A stark illustration of this was found in the recent study published by the USC Dornsife Spatial Institute.  Between 2000-2009 depending on where you live in Los Angeles the urban tree canopy declined 14-55%. 

Many factors have contributed to the decline in the urban tree canopy including development, lack of prioritizing trees in our urban tree policies, funding pressures, sidewalk repair, drought and disease.

A more recent 2016 study conducted by Tree People and Loyola Marymount Center showed that 18% of the total Los Angeles tree canopy is located where only 1% of the city’s population lives.  Los Angeles had an overall 25% canopy cover but most of that was in parks and recreational areas.  Our goal should be a tree canopy of at least 40% because that is minimum canopy coverage needed to lower the air temperature by a full 10 degrees.

As our urban forest declines and temperatures rise due to climate change, we should expect a massive increase in heat-related deaths.  Every year more people die from heat than all other natural disaster combined.  The National Resource Defense Council projects that 30,000 people will die each year from heat by 2040.  Low income areas are disproportionately affected by rising temperatures because of a much lower canopy cover than affluent areas and the heat island effect is exacerbated without trees for shade.

To put this in perspective, heat related deaths will approach the same levels as more well recognized crises such as gun violence, traffic related deaths, and drug overdoses.  The State of California and the Los Angeles Coroners won’t release the most recent figures associated with health-related deaths.  Why?  Maybe the data is just too horrifying.

Los Angeles has the dubious distinction of having the worst air quality of any city in the US.   As the Mayor backtracks on the plan for providing healthy air by 2025, we should question why he does not advocate for growing the urban forest as a key strategy to fight air pollution.

 The Dudek Report recommended the Mayor and City Council take immediate action, starting with the creation of an Urban Forest Management Plan, something that progressive cities have developed and instituted.   Mayor Garcetti is targeting a 2025 plan completion date, a timeframe that shows his lack of concern, since it could be completed years sooner.

Garcetti called for planting 20,000 trees per year in his recent Sustainability Plan.  Yet his plan fails to reflect the recommendations from the Dudek Report for a holistic and sustainable plan to protect, grow and maintain an urban forest.  A healthy urban forest is not comprised solely of newly planted young trees.  It is a mix of trees of all ages from old growth trees to new trees.

The Dudek Report found that a key factor in the failing urban forest is that the City doesn’t keep track of all of its trees.  It has no tree inventory.   With no tree inventory we can’t know if 20,000 trees planted annually will result in a net increase of canopy cover.    Trying to grow our urban forest without an inventory is like trying to save your business money while your business partner constantly withdraws funds without your knowledge.

And we don’t know how these 20,000 trees will be taken care of because Los Angeles has no tree care policy and has a very weak tree protection ordinance compared to other cities long with a total lack of enforcement of the inadequate ordinance we do have.  It is not uncommon for trees to removed secretly, without notice, at night or on the weekend.

Sadly, despite the decline in  our urban forest, the known cost-effective advantages of using trees to address climate change and local pollution, the damning findings of environmental experts on Los Angeles current urban forest policies and the lack of any plan whatsoever – there is decided lack of commitment by our City Leaders for our City’s urban forest. 

The Dudek Report compared the urban forestry budgets of Los Angeles to New York City, Melbourne and San Francisco.  Los Angeles on average spends roughly two thirds less than any other City per tree. San Francisco has a $19 million budget for trees for 884,000 citizens.  Los Angeles spends $25 million with a population of 4 million citizens. Unlike Los Angeles current urban tree policy policies, San Francisco and Melbourne have leaders who recognize the importance of and prioritize their urban forest, by having an inventory and a master plan to guide their decisions for a healthier urban forest.

In spite of a record breaking 9-billion-dollar budget this year, Garcetti’s proposed budget for 2019/2020 did not include any money to implement the first steps of the Dudek report.     Without enough funding our urban forest will continue to decline leaving all the citizens of Los Angeles vulnerable to the impact of climate change.   

We urge Mayor Garcetti and the City Council to reconsider their priorities when they review the budget this week and provide enough funding in order to implement the Dudek Report’s priority recommendations now.

(Jeanne McConnell and Jacky Surber are Co- Founders of Angelenos for Trees …a community group uniting Los Angeles neighborhoods to preserve and regenerate our shrinking tree canopy. Reach Jeanne at jeanne@jeannemcconnell.com)

-cw