Volunteer tree planting aims to soak up L.A. smog

When all eyes focus on Los Angeles for the 1984 summer Olympic Games, the athletes will be sharing the spotlight - with 1 million trees. An ambitious 10-year-old project called the Los Angeles Urban Forest is in the home stretch of a plan initiated in 1973 to beautify the city and cleanse the environment.

The TreePeople, a nonprofit group of largely volunteers which is directing the project, has already planted thousands of smog-tolerant trees in L.A. county. The environmental group plants 39 varieties of trees, from palms to pines, which are able to absorb large quantities of carbon monoxide, one component of the city's smoggy haze, in the process of photosynthesis.

TreePeople director Andy Lipkis explains that the group hopes to complete the project in time for the '84 games ''to show other nations the power of volunteers.''

In 1981 the Los Angeles City Planning Commission's air quality division issued a report saying that 1 million new smog-tolerant trees planted in the Los Angeles Basin could also clean up 80 percent of the city's particulate smog (composed of carbon particles from auto and industrial emissions) by the time the trees matured.

About 200 tons of the smog particles, which cling to certain types of trees and then are washed away by rains, could be cleared from the air each day, the report says. That improvement would bring L.A. into compliance with minimum federal clean air standards.

TreePeople is striving to reach that goal. Though it actually began planting in 1973, the report has accelerated the effort.

The organization was ''seeded'' by Mr. Lipkis in 1970, who, at age 15, was attending a summer camp in the San Bernardino Mountains that year.

''That year the camp naturalist . . . told us the reason the trees around us were dying,'' Lipkis explains. ''Smog from Los Angeles was blowing here and killing them.'' Disturbed by the thought of barren, treeless hills, Lipkis decided to take action. He spent his junior year of high school studying the effects of smog on trees.

Then in 1973, Lipkis ordered 20,000 sugar pine seedlings from the California Department of Forestry, hoping to plant them throughout the city. Summer camps in the area agreed to help with the planting, but he still didn't have money to pay for the trees.

''They said they would destroy the trees within weeks if I did not come up with $600. I was 18 at the time and I did not have the contacts or resources to raise $600,'' Lipkis recalls. ''Back then, state law prohibited the California Department of Forestry from giving away trees.''

A frustrated Lipkis contacted the media, and the L.A. Times picked up the story. Lipkis wrote:''I have given up trying to get money from big business. . . . If each person just contributes 50 cents for one tree, we could get it done.''

Within three weeks, $10,000 had come in. Then the Forestry Department found a loophole and donated 8,000 trees.

With a supply of trees, the sudden attention, and financial support, Lipkis and his band of volunteers decided to become the California Conservation Project. However, some summer campers began calling the group ''tree people,'' and it stuck.

Today, TreePeople aids in disaster relief projects, such as landscaping and replanting areas destroyed by fire. In a recent flood, some 3,000 volunteers sandbagged coastal areas which helped to save 1,200 homes. The group also manages and provides maintenance for a 42-acre L.A. city park and grooms trees in the area.

In addition, the group is building an environmental education program, which, after three years of funding from the California Department of Education, is now entirely self-sufficient. According to TreePeople Manager Jon Earl, some 12,000 young people each year go through an interdisciplinary program run by TreePeople , which includes a tour of the group's educational center and nursery, tree-potting and planting workshops, and free trees and presentations at the schools. Many of these programs fulfill schools' environmental education curriculum needs.

President Reagan has praised volunteerism as a way to reduce massive federal assistance programs, and several government officials and US senators have commended TreePeople for its efforts.

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