LA URBAN FOREST – Los Angeles has a Protected Tree Ordinance (PTO), but if you think that any of the City’s trees are actually protected, think again.
Developers cut down protected trees all the time. Sometimes they claim the trees will be replaced. Other times they just start cutting, since they know they’re unlikely to face any consequences. Violations of the PTO almost never result in sanctions.
And so, according to members of the surrounding community, this month a developer cut down 18 Southern California Black Walnut trees on a piece of land in El Sereno. It’s bad enough that the developer didn’t have a permit to remove the trees, but they didn’t even have a project. An application had been filed to subdivide the lot and build 32 houses, but the Department of City Planning did the right thing and denied approval. Among the reasons cited for the denial was the determination that the project was “likely to cause substantial environmental damage”.
When news about the removal of the trees spread, members of the community were outraged. Not only is the Southern California Black Walnut on the City of LA’s list of protected trees, the State also considers it a vulnerable species. Unfortunately, the City’s response so far has been pretty underwhelming. Staff from the Urban Forestry Division (UFD) visited the location, but they only viewed the site from the street, and so only noted two stumps in their report. Because of this, members of the community are skeptical that the City will do anything to sanction the developer. If UFD has no interest in documenting the full scope of the damage, it seems likely they have no interest in taking meaningful action.
Members of Coyotl + Macehualli, a local group that supports natural life, open hillsides, and native species, were appalled at this assault on the landscape. A number of them called in to the May 11 meeting of the Board of Public Works to demand that the City prohibit construction on the site for 10 years, which is the maximum penalty allowed under the Protected Tree Ordinance. Coyotl + Macehualli member Micah Haserjian expressed his anger about the removal of the trees, and about the City’s tepid response so far. Attorney Jamie Hall also spoke at the BPW hearing, joining the chorus of people asking for the maximum allowable sanctions.
Garden ecologist Diana Nicole, who has decades of experience with issues related to trees and habitat, says the problem goes beyond the removal of the trees. She points out that when the project was being considered, the California Department of Fish & Wildlife submitted a letter explaining that, “CDFW considers walnut woodlands distinct biological communities, consisting of trees, shrubs, vines, and herbaceous understory vegetation. [….] Removal or thinning of an understory in walnut woodland directly impacts the functions and values of the entire walnut woodland.” The letter also states, “Southern California black walnut is a sensitive and declining habitat type, is difficult to restore, and takes many years before habitat functions and values in restoration areas are equivalent to impacted areas.”
LA’s urban forest is under attack. Developers are routinely cutting down scores of trees for their projects. The NBC Universal Evolution Plan includes the removal of 112 trees, including 63 California Black Walnuts and 49 Coast Live Oaks. The makeover of the Sportsmen’s Lodge involved the removal of 90 mature trees to make way for an upscale “destination” with shops and restaurants. The City approved the removal of 90 more trees for the Promenade 2035 project in Warner Center. In each case replacement trees are required, but as LA’s climate grows hotter and drier, it will be much harder for the young replacements to thrive. On top of that, the City doesn’t appear to actually monitor the planting of replacement trees. It seems they just assume the developers will follow through.
We hear a lot of rhetoric from City Hall about creating a sustainable city, but the reality often falls far short of the promises. If the City actually cares about trees, then it has to enforce the Protected Tree Ordinance. If the City does not take meaningful action on the removal of the 18 Black Walnut trees in El Sereno, it will be yet another signal to developers that they can cut down whatever they want, whenever they want. Talk is cheap. The City needs to take action.
(Casey Maddren is President of United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles (UN4LA), and a CityWatch contributor.)