October 14, 2019

Andy Lipkis: Going Out on a Limb Led to TreePeople’s Growth

Andy Lipkis

In 1973, when TreePeople founder Andy Lipkis was an 18-year-old college freshman, he decided to build upon an experience he had at Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu. He contacted administrators of numerous summer camps in the San Bernardino National Forest and persuaded 20 of them to commit to his idea of starting a tree-planting program that could improve air quality and provide other natural benefits.

However, after ordering 20,000 smog-resistant trees from a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) nursery, he ran short of money and Cal Fire officials began destroying the seedlings to make room for the next year’s crop. Lipkis alerted the Los Angeles Times, which published a story that stopped Cal Fire from going further, saving 8,000 trees from his original order. The story also prompted a flow of donations and support that enabled him to go forward with his planting program.

Ever since, Lipkis has been leading TreePeople, a nonprofit that he estimates has worked with more than 2 million people to plant and care for more than 2 million trees. The organization also works to influence government leaders and agencies in instituting green policies and programs. 

Lipkis took a break recently to chat with the Journal about Tu B’Shevat, his love for trees and the work that TreePeople has been doing since the devastating Woolsey Fire last November. 

Jewish Journal: What’s your first memory of Tu B’Shevat?

Andy Lipkis: I heard about Tu B’Shevat in Hebrew school. I just remember hearing that it was the birthday of the trees. I was pretty young. I planted my first tree on Tu B’Shevat. 

JJ: What is your Jewish background? 

AL: My family helped found the synagogue B’nei Israel, which no longer exists, in Baldwin Hills. I grew up very much culturally Jewish going to Hebrew school there. I had a bar mitzvah. I was also in youth group at the temple. But the part much more close to my heart, and more descriptive of who I am, was my summers at Camp JCA. That was where I gained my values of service and concern for social activism.

JJ: When did you first start to take an interest in nature, specifically trees? 

AL: My parents planted an apple tree when they built the house I grew up in. I had a significant relationship with our garden and that tree. On both sides of the family, my grandmothers had apartments with gardens where I could grow vegetables. I had my hand in the soil from the earliest days. I also used to go hiking in the hills above our home in Baldwin Hills. 

JJ: What’s your favorite tree and why? 

AL: I love oak trees. They network. Their roots and fungal network that interconnect them with other trees and plants have been shown in scientific research to enable them to send messages, warnings of threats, food and medicine to those other trees, plants and species. I believe they are the reason our ancestors created Tu B’Shevat. Without them, our society, homes, communities, food supply and health are all at risk.

JJ: When did you decide you wanted to make environmentalism your life’s work? 

AL: Honestly, in summer camp at JCA. That’s when I really learned what tikkun olam was all about. We were into civil rights, into stopping the Vietnam War, and then Earth Day was established in 1970 and I was part of it that year. We learned about how air pollution and smog were killing the trees in the forests, and we were told they’d be gone in 20 years if the trees kept dying at that rate. We were told, essentially, that if Washington wasn’t doing anything about it, then we kids had to.

“I love oak trees. … I believe they are the reason our ancestors created Tu B’Shevat.”

JJ: So what did you do? 

AL: We decided we’d turn a place that was used in camp to park trucks and play softball into a meadow with smog-resistant trees. It took three weeks of incredibly hard work. Grass sprouted. Birds and squirrels came. It was almost Disneylike. There was something so powerful about us kids discovering we had the energy to do something that could heal the world in a small way. Our camp director, who was crying before we boarded our buses to go home, gathered our group and told us, “If this means something to you, go make it real when you get back home.” 

JJ: What has TreePeople been up to in the aftermath of the Woolsey Fire? 

AL: A lot, actually. For 15 years we’ve been working to restore the Santa Monica Mountains from fires by planting native oak trees and plants that don’t burn. We’re planting native grasses. In many of these fires, homes surrounded by oaks fare much better. Oaks don’t ignite during a firestorm unless they’re dead. Even at Camp JCA Shalom, the oak trees didn’t burn. Much of the structures did, but it was the non-native grasses that ignited everything. We’ve been replanting burned areas with native grasses, removing non-native grasses.

JJ: What else is TreePeople up to? 

AL: We’re leading the Los Angeles Urban Cooling Collaborative, a research partnership with the UCLA School of Public Health, University of Miami, Yale School of Forestry, Climate Resolve and L.A. County Public Health to determine the needed expansion of L.A.’s urban tree canopy. It would possibly … provide 40 percent coverage or more. Our staff is facilitating the planning within L.A. city government to develop a cooling plan for the city to combat ever-hotter temperatures. 

JJ: How can people get involved with TreePeople? 

AL: Our work is to inspire, engage and support the people of L.A. to participate in making L.A. safe, healthy, fun, sustainable and resilient. People can check out the calendar and listings, including Tu B’Shevat-themed events, at treepeople.org/volunteer. They can also offer financial support or be an advocate and participate in our policy work.