Environmental activist leads discussion on campus greening project

Daily Sundial, February 8, 2009

Environmental activist leads discussion on campus greening project

By Linda Coburn

Local environmental guru Andy Lipkis drew a crowd that exceeded the 100 or so seats that had originally been arranged in the USU Grand Salon for Thursday’s teach-in on climate change and sustainability.

Lipkis, the Keynote speaker and the founder of TreePeople, told the assemblage his talk was meant to “upset you, rile you up and get you to take action.”

Before he did that, though, he gave a little history of how he became an environmental activist at the tender age of 15.

Growing up in Los Angeles in the 1950s, Lipkis said, the smog was so bad “it hurt to breathe.” It was only at summer camps in the San Bernardino mountains that he could inhale without pain. One summer, Lipkis was exposed to a naturalist who told the campers the smog from below was killing the forest.

That led to the most exciting experience of his life, said Lipkis, who could not stand idly by while trees were dying.

“For three weeks, we sweated and toiled with pickaxes and shovels and tore up an asphalt parking lot and turned it into a meadow,” he said.

And for the next three years, Lipkis “tried and failed and tried and failed and tried again,” to organize a meaningful and lasting organization to build on that experience and save the forest. Through all that trial and error, Lipkis said, he gained a real education in forestry and environmental science.

So when he learned that the state of California was getting ready to destroy 20,000 tree seedlings because no one had the funds to buy them, he moved heaven and earth to get them planted in his beloved San Bernardino mountains.

With the help of a Los Angeles Times editor who helped get the story out, he was able to raise $4,000 from readers and friends and family and relocate 8,000 trees that escaped the bulldozer. TreePeople was born: Lipkis was just 18 years old.

Since that time, the nonprofit organization which now has its headquarters on Mulholland Drive at the intersection of Coldwater Canyon Avenue, has grown to tackle recycling programs, urban tree plantings, watershed projects and even a South Central L.A. home renovation.

The organization’s mission is “Engaging nature and community to protect and heal our cities,” said Lipkis, “but it’s not about ‘woo woo’ spiritual healing: it’s about real damage to our urban environments that need healing.”

He encouraged students to participate in a massive watershed reforestation effort underway in the mountain areas that were burned in last summer’s wildfires.

“It’s not a question of whether you ‘can’ make a difference,” said Lipkis passionately. “You absolutely do make a difference…you make a difference with every penny you spend, with every action you take or don’t take.”