On a recent morning, a handful of young people unloaded potted saplings to plant along the curbside in a program that brings greenery to Los Angeles neighborhoods. The LA Conservation Corps is working to restore trees lost to disease, drought and the kind of construction that leaves little space for nature.

Trees are essential to a community, says Alex Villalta, an urban forestry inspector with the conservation corps. The group, which was founded in 1986 by former U.S. Commerce Secretary Mickey Kantor, offers young people job training in projects that help to restore and beautify the city.

Trees provide improved air quality, Villalta said. “We have better storm water management” and trees make neighborhoods livable, he added. 

​Trees being lost

The greenery remains in some local cities, such as Pasadena, but many other communities in the Los Angeles basin are tree deserts. The community of Baldwin Park lost more than half its trees on single-family lots in just nine years because of redevelopment and other factors.

In 2007, Los Angeles launched a plan to plant 1 million trees, but it has been a challenge for this green army of young people, according to a study published in April by researchers at the University of Southern California in the journal Urban Forestry & Urban Greening. Scientists found a reduction in green cover in 20 communities in the Los Angeles basin from 2000 to 2009, says urban ecologist Travis Longcore, co-author of the study.

He says urban trees flourished here through much of the 20th century but have declined in the 21st. 

Watch: Community Groups, Scientists Work to Stem Tree Loss

“It’s pretty clearly because of the redevelopment of these single-family neighborhoods into larger and larger homes that go closer and closer to the lot lines,” he said, a trend known as “mansionization.” In other cases, he said, owners clear the land for second structures or to expand their driveways, leaving little space for nature.

Longcore, who teaches architecture and spatial sciences, says communities that put up legal barriers to removing legacy trees are the most successful in limiting tree loss.

Millions of California trees have also been lost to pests and disease in both wilderness regions and cities. The causes include a native tree bark beetle and the invasive polyphagous shot hole borer beetle, which brings a dangerous fungus to some trees. A five-year drought that ended this year has also left the state’s trees vulnerable.

L.A. planting thousand of trees

Los Angeles officials say the city planted more than 18,000 trees last year. Longcore says the number is not enough to compensate for the losses, which exceed 1 percent per year of the region’s trees in the period of the study. 

Jeff Davis, a supervisor with the conservation corps, says the young men and women on his crew are gratified with their contribution, even if more needs to be done. 

“They can always come back and say, ‘I planted that tree,’” he said.

Corps members are learning skills and gaining experience in conservation work. Some, like Ivan Escamilla and Ronaldo Martinez, both 20, hope to pursue careers in the field, “enjoying nature, and getting some fresh air,” Martinez said.

Helping trees survive is just as important as planting them, says the conservation corps’ Villalta, and the organization has turned its attention to the problem. He notes that California’s extended drought brought mixed messages, leading some residents to believe that watering trees was a waste of water. On the contrary, say experts, trees cool our streets and help distribute water through the soil, as they add green spaces to our neighborhoods.

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