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TreePeople

They teach kids that the city is a living ecosystem that can be healed and nurtured by the informed acts of caring citizens.

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This story is an excerpt from Stone Soup for the World: Life Changing Stories of Everyday People.

Told by Skye Trimble

Camp was great fun, that summer of 1970. The roasting of marshmallows and the woodsy smell of the fire made fifteen-year-old Andy Lipkis fall in love with the outdoors. But as he looked out over the forested mountains above the city of Los Angeles, his heart sank. He knew that pollution was weakening the trees, and bark beetles were killing them at a rapid rate.

Andy couldn’t just stand by and watch them die. So, he rallied his fellow campers in an amazing tree-saving adventure. First they planted smog-tolerant trees in an old parking lot at the camp. As they swung their picks and sowed seedlings, they brought life back into that piece of earth. They were proud of the work they had done together. When camp was over, one fellow camper put his hand on Andy’s shoulder and said, “Let’s visit the trees when we’re old.” Andy knew they would.

But Andy couldn’t just leave it at that and wait until he got old. We need to spread this work to more land and more people, he thought, with a twinge of fear—not of failure, he realized, but of success. He knew if he got people to join him, he would be responsible for what happened next. It might mean he would be planting trees for the rest of his life. Still, he decided to follow his heart, wherever it might lead him.

A few years later, Andy heard that the California Department of Forestry was going to destroy twenty thousand surplus seedlings. He asked if he could have them for another tree-planting project. “That would be considered a gift of public funds,” the department told him. “We’re prohibited by law from giving them to you.”

Andy didn’t give up easily. He called newspapers, senators, and anyone else who could pull some strings. He told them what was about to happen, and begged them to do something, and they did. When the Los Angeles Times called the governor’s office to confirm a story they were planning to run, the governor’s office decided it was time to act. They called the Department of Forestry and ordered the bulldozing to stop, just as the seedlings were being plowed under.

Finally, Andy was granted permission to adopt the remaining seedlings, but that’s not the end of this story. Next he brought together the kids and counselors from twenty summer camps for a major replanting project. Newspaper coverage led to more donations, more volunteers, and a new law requiring the government to give surplus trees to nonprofit groups who wanted them. People from all backgrounds joined Andy and his growing pack of citizen foresters. The group’s nickname, TreePeople, took root.

In 1980 the mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley, heard about TreePeople’s success. He’d read that massive city tree planting could reduce pollution, and wondered if planting a million trees in L.A. could breathe life back into his city. The official estimate was twenty years and $200 million to complete the project. But the city couldn’t wait twenty years, Mayor Bradley could see that. So he called TreePeople.

“L.A. had just been selected as the city to host the 1984 Olympics,” says Andy. “I saw this as a perfect opportunity to demonstrate the power of cooperative action to a global audience. I told the mayor I was sure the people of L.A. could do it, at virtually no cost to government.”

Response to the Million Tree Campaign was enthusiastic from the beginning. One nursery on the other side of Los Angeles offered to donate 100,000 surplus trees to get it started, if TreePeople could find a way to move them. The air force had helped TreePeople before, transporting trees in their trucks. Though it had taken nearly two years for someone to get back to him the first time, the letter he had finally received from air force officer Andy Drysdale left a lasting impression: “Maybe we can help you,” it had said. When Andy asked for their help again, the air force came through quickly, donating eight mega-transports and troops to help move and prepare the 100,000 seedlings.

Early one morning in November 1981, eight massive army trucks arrived in a convoy that stretched a quarter-mile on the freeway, to move the seedlings across the L.A. basin. Three hundred volunteers and soldiers worked side by side all day long to move the seedlings. They began friendships and shared stories that made the day go by quickly.

As the soldiers drove out of the canyon at day’s end, they were stopped by a beautiful sight. A group of volunteers stood in a circle holding hands, the sun- set’s glow bathing them in warm light. The troops were so moved that they stopped and joined the circle, making it twice as big. Hand in hand, they celebrated not just the day’s achievement, but also their power to contribute to life— a different way to use their force.

With this auspicious beginning, Andy and the TreePeople incited hundreds more volunteers to plant the millionth tree by the 1984 Summer Olympics. In the next three years, people from all over Los Angeles became TreePeople. Billboards exhorted turn over a new leaf, Los Angeles. Bumper stickers boasted rooting for the future. People came together among the trees, and in the hope that they could help heal their home and the planet, too.

Four days before the Olympic flame was lit, the millionth tree was snug in the ground. The people of Los Angeles felt profoundly satisfied by what they had done with their own hands. To celebrate, volunteers gathered in the mountains overlooking the city. Old and young, men and women, leaders from corporations, government agencies, and gangs beamed with the sun and danced on the mountain together.

Since the Million Tree Campaign, TreePeople has been training young people to become “managers of the environment.” They teach kids that the city is a living ecosystem that can be healed and nurtured by the informed acts of caring citizens. They even deliver fruit trees to low-income families across the city so they can grow their own fresh fruit. On Martin Luther King Day, 1990, they got thousands of Angelenos to plant the largest living memorial to Dr. King ever created. Today five hundred trees line the entire seven miles of King Boulevard. TreePeople Citizen Foresters organize neighborhoods to plant and care for trees throughout Los Angeles.

Andy’s summer-camp dream is alive, the gift of a lifetime, the gift of life. He tells city kids across the country, “Believe in your dreams. That’s what made mine grow.”

We have a responsibility to the largest population of all, the hundreds of billions of people who have not yet been born, who have a right to be, who deserve a world at least as beautiful as ours.
David R. Brower

Plant a tree and take care of it. Learn how you can help rebuild the forests in your community by calling your local forest ranger. Join the National Association of Service and Conservation Corps. If you live in Los Angeles and want to help Andy rebuild the forests, clean the air, and strengthen the economy, visit, www.treepeople.org.

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