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TreePeople leader stresses importance of trees


It’s as simple as planting a tree.

The result produces substantial environmental benefits. A healthy tree canopy protects humans in a changing climate. Trees filter air pollution, create the air we breathe, offer energy-saving shade that lowers global warming and creates habitation for thousands of species, decreases ozone levels in urban areas and seizes carbon, helping to eliminate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from the air, which, in turn, cools the earth.

To put it simply, trees are essential to life.

Just ask Cindy Montanez, the chief executive officer of TreePeople, an environmental nonprofit that unites the power of trees, people and nature-based solutions to grow a sustainable future for Los Angeles.

“We are mobilizing people all over the region to come together in neighborhoods to plant and care for trees,” said Montanez, a lifelong Angeleno who grew up in the northeast San Fernando Valley. “We are about uniting communities. Our goal is to inspire, engage and support people to make a difference by taking personal responsibility for our environment.”

Not mincing words, Montanez said if people don’t take care of trees the result could be catastrophic.

“If we don’t take care of the trees we have and don’t plant more trees we’re going to die,” Montanez said. “Doctors and scientists have already found out through research that the elderly, African-American women and Latinos are more affected than anyone else when it comes to a lack of trees.”

During hot days, Montanez said research has shown that African-American women and Latinos are most likely to die after five days of it reaching 95 degrees or hotter.

“That’s because they are living in communities where there are not enough trees,” she said. “It gets hot and there is no protection. People are living in conditions where communities are hotter. If you have hypertension and high cholesterol it accelerates the problem. Whatever condition we have gets exacerbated.”

According to the American Lung Association, Los Angeles ranks among the worst cities in the country for air pollution. Trees help to absorb the pollutants and to filter particulates out of the air.

Montanez said the reason Los Angeles is considered one of the worst is because “we’re not doing enough to capture carbon emission. Plant more trees so we can capture more of the emissions. There are things we can do.”

With a glass being half full mentality, Montanez says no one has to die because there is an attainable solution.

Simply plant more trees.

Admittedly, Montanez doesn’t know the exact number of trees needed in Los Angeles in order to make it safe.

“We did an analysis and found out that 90 percent of the trees in Los Angeles County exist in only 10 different zip codes and most of those are located on the west side, which happens to be the wealthiest,” she said. “The southeast, East L.A. and places like that have the lowest canopy coverage. Some communities have less than 6% coverage. We’re looking into that.”

According to Montanez, Mayor Eric Garcetti wants to plant 90,000 trees by 2021. And while that sounds like an impressive number, Montanez said the city needs to plant more.

“That’s not enough, but it’s a good start.”

TreePeople encourages everyone to get involved with saving the planet by volunteering. They offer programs each week focusing on the care and planting of trees, the removal of invasive species and how to maintain parks. There is also information available on forestry and for schools interested in teaching about the environment.

Montanez said the goal is to empower residents with the support, training and tools they need to be an engine of change.

“When they volunteer, we tell people the realities and show them maps of how hot it’s going to get,” she said. “We tell them we can do something about it. We keep it welcoming and engaging. We meet people where they are and teach them how to plant a tree.”

They also remind people that there are other things they can do as citizens of the planet to ensure a healthy environment.

“We can start by thinking about what we can do in our behavior to help heal the earth,” Montanez said. “We can stop using plastic, decide to walk instead of using a car. Teach kids about the environment. That’s important. There are seven billion people on earth. If we all came together, it would be for our own benefit. Just think about what you can do today to make the earth a better place.”

Montanez has always been in the trenches — so to speak. She got her passion for the environment honestly. Her parents ignited a passion in her at an early age when they pointed out environmental injustices in their neighborhood. The family would participate in tree plantings and would often visit state and national parks.

“They encouraged us to pursue careers in social justice,” said Montanez, who likes to hike in the local mountains.

Montanez has been in public policy for most of her life. She was a student activist at UCLA. By the age of 25, she was elected as the youngest mayor and councilmember of her hometown of San Fernando. At 28, she made history by becoming the youngest woman elected to the California Legislature. 

From there she went to the Department of Water and Power because she wanted “to make utilities greener.”

From there, TreePeople called. She took the job because she wanted to “make a difference in Los Angeles.”

According to Montanez, planting trees is not just about digging a hole and placing a seed or tree inside. The right tree has to be in the right place at the right time. Planting a tree should be done between September and April. Over the summer is a no-no.

“The right tree also depends on where you live,” said Montanez. “A tree for example in San Fernando Valley must be able to be in a place that is hotter and needs less water. If you’re closer to the ocean, there is more humidity. 

“We want to teach neighborhoods how to plant trees in their community. If you only have a small parkway space in front of your house, you don’t want a big tree that will destroy your sidewalk.”

TreePeople was founded by Andy Lipkis in 1973 when he was an 18-year-old college freshman. He was so passionate about trees he dropped out of college to focus his attention on making enough money to plant trees.

Montanez took the helm of TreePeople because she wanted nothing more than to be part of climate change and climate justice.

“I took the position of executive director because I know I can make a great difference,” she said. “It’s such a simple thing to do — plant a tree and take care of the earth. Working with TreePeople is the best thing I’ve ever done.”

“Making A Difference” is a weekly feature profiling organizations that are serving their communities. To propose a “Making A Difference” profile, send an email to

By Darlene Donloe

Contributing Writer