Tough time for city trees

As lack of rain takes toll, less-thirsty species may find fa­vor

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Matt Stevens, Tay­lor Gold­en­stein and Tony Perry

The nee­dles on the red­woods that wel­come vis­i­tors to Grif­fith Park have faded to brown over the last two years. Laura Bauern­feind has watched the trees slowly die and work­ers even­tu­ally ar­rive, chain saws buzzing, to fell the husks one by one.

“I would be ly­ing if I said it was not dis­heart­en­ing,” said Bauern­feind, prin­ci­pal forester with the Los An­ge­les Depart­ment of Recre- ation and Parks. “We ded­i­cate our ca­reers here to sus­tain­ing our park trees.”

The un­re­lent­ing drought that has rav­aged parts of Cal­i­for­nia’s for­est land is now tak­ing a toll on the trees that line ur­ban parks, boule­vards and backyards. From the traf­fic-clogged streets of L.A. to San Diego’s scenic parks, the trees that lo­cals have come to love are in­creas­ingly fall­ing vic­tim to years of hot weather and lit­tle rain.

Ac­cord­ing to a parks depart­ment sur­vey end­ing in April, as many as 14,000 trees in L.A. parks — about 4% of the to­tal — may have died dur­ing the last year of drought. The year be­fore that, of­fi­cials said only about 1% of trees were found dead. In a nor­mal year, the tally would be even less.

Sci­en­tists say the death of so many trees could drive up tem­per­a­tures, wreak havoc on habi­tats and limit the cap­ture of wa­ter. They ex­pect that even more trees could wither as Cal­i­for­ni­ans strug­gle to com­ply with new con­ser­va­tion rules.

On the bright side, though, sci­en­tists say the drought could force home­own­ers and cities to ir­ri­gate more ef­fi­ciently and re­place old, thirsty trees with drought-tol­er­ant ones.

“Peo­ple re­ally haven’t had to play a role in tak­ing care of the ecosys­tem around them,” said Andy Lip­kis, pres­i­dent of the non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion TreePeo­ple. “If we’re go­ing to have trees here tak­ing care of us, we have a role to play if they’re go­ing to live. That means learn­ing a

lit­tle bit, and not caus­ing more dam­age.”

Park trees across Los An­ge­les are show­ing signs of dis­tress and suc­cumb­ing to the drought, Bauern­feind said. Along ur­ban streets, Lip­kis said he sees trees dead or dy­ing “pretty much block by block.” But he said no­body is keep­ing an ex­act count. (The city’s ur­ban forestry di­vi­sion, which over­sees street trees, did not re­turn calls for com­ment.)

More than 100 miles south, the drought is hit­ting trees in San Diego’s Bal­boa Park. While most of the trees ap­pear in good shape, those in ar­eas not served by ir­ri­ga­tion — in steep gul­lies not used by park vis­i­tors, and on the west­ern edge of the park — are in trou­ble.

“The older trees are strug­gling,” par­tic­u­larly those de­pen­dent on rain­wa­ter, said Casey Smith, the park’s dis­trict manager.

Last week, city work­ers were in­stalling ir­ri­ga­tion pip­ing near a grove of a dozen Ca­nary Is­land pines on the west­ern edge.

“We need to save the trees,” said crew leader David Gon­za­lez. “They’re old, but we need them here for our kids and their kids.”

Bal­boa Park is a top tourist des­ti­na­tion but also serves many lo­cals, par­tic­u­larly from sur­round­ing neigh­bor­hoods, who jog or walk their dogs there. Park pa­trons are wor­ried about how the city can keep the 1,200-acre park green and invit­ing while fol­low­ing the man­date from Gov. Jerry Brown and state wa­ter of­fi­cials to use less wa­ter.

“I’m wor­ried about the park, we’re all wor­ried,” Alessa Goforth said as she walked her two poo­dles. “To­day, it’s not bad, but if things go on, who knows? It wouldn’t be our San Diego with­out our park.”

Ar­borists and ex­perts say that tree loss could have dire con­se­quences.

Trees pro­vide shade and help cool the en­vi­ron­ment, said Stephanie Pincetl, direc­tor of the Cal­i­for­nia Cen­ter for Sus­tain­able Com­mu­ni­ties at UCLA. The av­er­age park in L.A. is about five de­grees cooler than the neigh­bor­hood that sur­rounds it, Bauern­feind said.

Trees also ab­sorb and store rain wa­ter that could oth­er­wise cause f lood­ing, Lip­kis said. The es­ti­mated 350,000 trees in city parks cap­ture more than 360 mil­lion gal­lons of stormwa­ter ev­ery year, Bauern­feind said. Col­lec­tively, L.A. parks’ tree in­ven­tory has a re­place­ment value of $2.2 bil­lion, she said.

“Just like we have to paint City Hall and care for it, we have an obli­ga­tion to care for this hard-work­ing in­fra­struc­ture,” Bauern­feind said.

“It’s no dif­fer­ent than a power line or a sewer line.”

Trees are al­ready get­ting cut down to make way for homes and busi­nesses, ex­perts said. And new wa­ter­ing re­stric­tions could fur­ther com­pound the prob­lem.

As Cal­i­for­ni­ans have turned off their sprin­klers to meet con­ser­va­tion man­dates in the wake of Brown’s or­der to cut ur­ban wa­ter use by 25%, backyard trees are suf­fer­ing along with lawns, ar­borists said.

Trees on street me­di­ans may also be at risk be­cause of new drought re­stric­tions that pro­hibit ir­ri­gat­ing turf on public me­di­ans with drink­able wa­ter.

“The chal­lenge is mak­ing sure that the trees and other veg­e­ta­tion that is not turf get suf­fi­cient ir­ri­ga­tion to stay alive,” said Max Gomberg, the state wa­ter board’s se­nior sci­en­tist.

Linda Eremita, forestry ed­u­ca­tion manager at Tree-Peo­ple, said trees do need wa­ter, but the wa­ter does not al­ways have to be potable.

For ex­am­ple, La Cañada Flin­tridge has con­tracted with neigh­bor­ing Glen­dale to buy re­cy­cled wa­ter for trees in me­di­ans.

“Cap­ture rain wa­ter, in­stall a gray­wa­ter sys­tem — there’s lots of ways to wa­ter trees,” Eremita said. “Peo­ple think be­cause a tree is so big and es­tab­lished it can’t fail. Well, they are fail­ing.”

Still, the tree deaths may prove in­struc­tive, ex­perts said. Cal­i­for­ni­ans may turn to more ef­fi­cient ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tems and take the time to learn more about how much wa­ter their trees ac­tu­ally need, Pincetl said.

In ad­di­tion, trees that fall vic­tim to the drought can be re­placed with those re­quir­ing less wa­ter.

“Peo­ple like green­ery and land­scape. They don’t know very much about it,” Pincetl said. “So what we have is a set of hor­ti­cul­tural prac­tices that are pretty lazy.”

Some trees won’t need re­plac­ing. On Santa Cruz Is­land, where about twothirds of the Bishop pines ap­pear dead, the trees can re­gen­er­ate.

Kathryn McEach­ern, a re­search ecol­o­gist with the U.S. Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey, said the trees’ closed cones fall with them when they die. Heat, ei­ther from fire or weather, causes the cones to open and re­lease the seeds. When rain fi­nally ar­rives, the seeds ger­mi­nate and even­tu­ally new trees grow.

“It’s the cy­cle of life, and an in­di­ca­tor that we do go through drought pe­ri­ods that af­fect plants,” McEach­ern said. “But it’s pretty cool that they ac­tu­ally have a mech­a­nism to come back.”

Ir­fan Khan Los An­ge­les Times

ON A GOLF COURSE at Grif­fith Park, Arthur Flores, a tree sur­geon su­per­vi­sor, checks out red­wood and oak trees un­der droughtre­lated stress. Ac­cord­ing to a city sur­vey, as many as 14,000 trees in L.A.’s parks may have died dur­ing the last year of drought.

Ir­fan Khan Los An­ge­les Times

AR­BORISTS AND EX­PERTS say that tree loss could have dire con­se­quences. Trees pro­vide shade and help cool the en­vi­ron­ment, as well as ab­sorb and store rain wa­ter that could oth­er­wise cause f lood­ing. Above, Arthur Flores stands be­neath a dy­ing tree at Grif­fith Park.

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