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Plant a Tree, Build a Community

Husband-and-wife team see urban forestry as a way to help people make a difference. INTERVIEW: HANDS-ON ECOLOGISTS

By Kirsten A. ConoverStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 29, 1990


ANDY and Katie Lipkis have seen it happen time and time again: When people come together to plant trees, they end up growing, too. ``Whenever you simply plant a tree and care for it,'' says Mr. Lipkis, ``it speaks a different kind of truth that nobody can take away, because you actually see yourself change a piece of the world and see other lives change and your own life change as a result.''

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Mr. and Mrs. Lipkis are president and vice president of TreePeople, a nonprofit organization in Los Angeles that has become a global example as a pioneer of urban forestry and promoter of community empowerment.

Just out is their book: ``The Simple Act of Planting a Tree'' (Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher Inc., $12.95), springing from 20 years' experience that has sparked other nonprofit tree-planting groups nationwide.

Based on TreePeople's Citizen Forester Training Program, the book is a ``how-to'' manual, offering inspiration and information to people who want to learn about community tree plantings - from fund raising to fertilizer.

``I really think that what they've developed is the kind of guide we've needed for years,'' says Brian McGuire, community volunteer coordinator with the United States Forest Service. ``The best part for me is that it talks about where the ownership of tree care needs to be - with citizens, and not expecting somebody else to do it. It teaches individual responsibility.'' Mr. McGuire also points out that the Lipkises have been active in advising the White House in President Bush's tree-planting initiative.

But there's more.

A means to greater end

``The subtitle of the book is: `Healing your neighborhood, your city, and your world,''' says Andy, who founded TreePeople in 1973 as a 15-year-old camper planting trees in California's San Bernadino Valley. ``It has a lot to do with healing our relationship with ourselves, our family, and with our community, our planet.''

In an interview, the Lipkises talked about their deep-rooted philosophy of how tree planting can bring communities together as well as improve the planet.

``Wherever we go we find people are hungry to give their time and energy, and hungry to count and make their mark,'' says Andy, who, with Katie, has addressed conferences worldwide and helped establish ``Global ReLeaf,'' the American Forestry Association's national campaign to encourage the planting of 100 million trees in US cities by 1992.

``And yet we find ourselves in a world that - by the size of things, by the way the media tends to work it - makes things bigger than life, and says to you that `you don't count,' `you can't have an impact.' And in the most fundamental sense, this work is about - this book is about - turning that around.''

The aim of the organization, though never formally stated, is ``to turn people on to their ability to heal the world,'' says Andy.

As naive as that might sound, he continues, over the past 20 years TreePeople has seen that healing happen. In 1986, for example, 5,000 young fruit trees were flown to Africa, where 80 percent of them survived to bear fruit two years later. In 1978 and 1980, TreePeople mobilized for flood-relief work; in 1986, they evacuated books after the Los Angeles Central Library fire. Each year TreePeople plant thousands of trees and offer environmental leadership programs to more than 100,000 children.