TREE PLANTING - On Oct. 14, 2022, at a regular Board of Public Works meeting, agenda item #3 provided a cornucopia of urban forestry information, the likes of which have never been disclosed to the public.
The item was titled: “PUBLIC WORKS TRUST FUND NO. 834 – OAK TREE DEPOSITS FUNDING RELOCATION”.
So much of how trees get planted in the city, by whom and with what money has remained cloaked in mystery – until now! What the public does get exposed to are mostly Mayoral promises to plant a certain number of trees within a given time frame. Think “A Million Trees” (Villaraigosa) or, more recently, “90K Trees” (Garcetti). What is never disclosed with any clarity is the fact that the public themselves are heavily subsidizing these trees by finding locations for them (labor), planting them (labor) and watering them (labor and water costs). The city, for its part, does offer actual trees (15 gallon sized) to verified residents through its public-private partnership called City Plants, which gets funding from the LA Dept. of Water and Power. However, unless you are a homeowner with a yard, it’s unlikely you would be able to take advantage of this program. The city has been offloading all the maintenance costs and location scouting to the public. This urban forestry bait and switch has been going on for decades. Given this scenario, who could really say how much it costs to plant a tree in Los Angeles without the public doing the lion’s share of the work?
There are a few budgetary numbers that Angelenos have become familiar with.
--Los Angeles Police Department budget: ~2B/per year
--Councilperson’s salary: ~200K/per year
--Homeless housing: ~700K/per unit.
But what about how much it costs to plant a tree? How many people know about the Public Works “trust funds” that hold money specifically designated for trees? Is the public aware how this trust fund money gets doled out and where it comes from? In asking around, I have found even seasoned tree advocates and reporters of local environmental issues are not aware of these trust funds. It is because they have been hidden from view. Start digging around and asking questions about these trust funds and you are likely to hit a brick wall of silence, like I have.
This is all why the Oct. 14th meeting was so unusual – it offered the rarest of glimpses into these trust funds, how they get tapped and what for. What was revealed is the city’s most up-to-date true cost of planting and caring for a tree, with unionized urban forestry city staffers – or “insourced” (as it was referred to) labor costs included. The real cost to plant one tree is: $4,351.12. The breakdown, taken from the agenda, is below.
COST AND ANTICIPATED FUND USE OPTIONS
The cost for the procurement, planting and watering over five years per Oak Tree is projected to be $4,351.12. See breakdown in Table B below:
Table B: Cost Per Tree
Line Item Amount
Labor Cost $ 1,371.32
Cost of Watering (5 Years) $ 2,500.00
Cost Per Tree $ 289.80
Equipment Cost $ 190.00
TOTAL: $ 4,351.12
To those unfamiliar with the mechanics of urban forestry, this number might see high, but as a street tree planter myself, it sounds accurate. It takes many years (experts agree five) of dedicated maintenance (labor) to get a tree started off right so that it roots properly. Public Works Trust Fund Manager Norman Tanada, stated at the meeting,
1:31:26: “And how we came about the number of oak trees to be planted of 154 was again based on the cost of planting these oak trees - you'll see that there's a total cost of $4,351 of that being a labor cost of $1,371 again the cost of watering of $2,500 again over five years the cost of the tree the cost per tree at under $300…”
If you are at all interested in city urban forestry policy, I highly recommend listening to the audio (and/or reading the YouTube transcript) of agenda item #3 of this Oct. 14th Public Works meeting in its totality (over an hour). I have already listened to it a half a dozen times, and I learn something new with each listening. The meeting discussion touches on the various Public Works trust funds that contain money for all-inclusive tree-plantings (with labor added), the preference of UF staff to plant 24” box-sized trees, discussion of conservation vs. urban tree-planting, questions from the Public Works board members about tree equity and so much more. There are in fact three separate Public Works trust funds that are mentioned during this meeting – the Oak Tree Trust Fund, the Tree Guarantee Trust Fund and the LADWP Trust Fund which funds the City Plants program. Collectively, these trust funds hold millions of dollars.
It is important that these trust funds become more widely publicized so that community groups can request trees! For example, neighborhood councils should be alerted as to what is available/per council district so that they can weigh in about where exactly trees should be planted. The discussions that are happening now are not transparent, which was noted during public comment. Regarding the Tree Guarantee Trust Fund, there are serious questions about if developer in-lieu tree fees are even being collected at all, as well as additional questions that now present themselves regarding the value of a tree, given the $4,351.12 cost/per tree mentioned at the meeting (Tree Guarantee fees max out at $2,612/per tree). Speaking of location, the below comment from a public official during agenda item #3 piqued my curiosity,
1:08:24: “Commissioners my name is Noah Fleishman. I'm the District Director for Los Angeles City Council member Mike Bonin…we're very supportive of Urban Forestry and Bureau of Street Services’ proposal… to plant over 30 new oak trees on Manchester Avenue between Sepulveda Blvd. and Falmouth Ave. This is a gateway street to Los Angeles International Airport…it's unfortunately not the most aesthetically pleasing area and I do believe that the planting of more than 30 oak trees along this median will greatly improve the…local environment in the area.”
Something about this comment gave me the feeling planting oak trees along Manchester might have less to do with community preference and tree equity and more to do with prettying-up LAX for the 2028 Olympic games. Given no community groups from CD11 chimed in, it’s hard to know exactly why that location was chosen. My overarching point remains that the public needs to be made more aware of this tree money so that locations can be fully vetted by those outside City Hall. Let’s make sure we spend this money wisely and that these trees are going where they are most needed – it is after all our money to spend.
Important takeaways from this meeting are:
- Cost of one tree including labor and water = $4,351.12
- Public Works trust funds include money for neighborhood tree-plantings (including labor and water)
- Urban Forestry prefers planting 24” box sized trees in the public right of way
- Urban Forestry prefers 5 years of watering
If you hear of a tree-planting project in your community that does not include all the above, ask the organizers why and investigate usage of the tree trust funds via your elected officials.
(Katherine McNenny works in Los Angeles' garment industry as a Patternmaker and lives Downtown. She is co-founder of Industrial District Green, an organization that has planted over 400 trees in the area. Her focus is on issues that affect the Skid Row neighborhood and how to improve City urban forestry policy.)