MICHIGAN AVE — Drive along Michigan Avenue today near Crossroads School where it overlooks the buzzing I-10 Freeway, and you’ll notice something different — trees.
A stand of young California sycamores, supported by poles nearly as tall as the trees themselves, line what used to be a dilapidated asphalt pad, sentinels against the waves of invisible chemicals and particulates emanating from the cars below.
The trees represent the intersection of national policy and local achievement as part of both a federal pilot project to study the carbon sequestering potential of the urban forest and the culmination of one Santa Monican’s journey to attain the highest title available to him — Eagle Scout.
Josh Lappen, 17, stumbled upon the planting project through hard work and luck.
Lappen has been a member of Santa Monica’s Boy Scout Troop 2 since he was in seventh grade. That’s several years of knot tying, fire starting and learning to canoe, a specialty of Troop 2.
At the end of the parade of merit badges comes not a new turn, but a mountain — choose to take on the six-month process of elevating to Eagle Scout or simply content oneself with a job well done.
Amongst a host of other requirements, prospective Eagle Scouts have to commit themselves to accomplishing a project for the community. Although there are no hard and fast rules on what the project must entail, they usually contribute something meant to last and consume over 100 hours of effort on the part of the applicant.
Lappen was struggling. He knew he wanted to contribute something to the outdoors that had an emphasis on the environment and sustainability, but hit only dead ends.
“I looked originally at trail building,” Lappen said. “One of the things I especially love about Boy Scouts are the outdoor activities.”
But when he picked up the phone to call a state park and offer free manual labor, no one answered. Budget cuts had taken their toll on the park system to the point that Lappen couldn’t find anyone to even hear his proposal.
“Now that’s a story,” Lappen said.
A multitude of contacts later, Lappen hit upon the city of Santa Monica and contacted City Forester Walt Warriner.
Warriner, it so happened, had an idea.
City Hall signed up with the United States Forest Service to take part in a pilot project that could eventually earn carbon credits by planting 1,000 trees that remove carbon from the air.
Carbon credits are an interesting invention of the capitalist system that puts a value on the amount of carbon dioxide and other green house gases that a company or entity emits. Exchanges, similar to the New York Stock Exchange, allow polluting companies or industries to buy credits so they can effectively produce more pollution.
At the other end of the transaction is another group that promises to either reduce its own emissions or actively remove carbon from the air.
The 1,000 trees being planted in Santa Monica will remove green house gases from the air and eventually make City Hall a player in that market.
Through a grant from the South Coast Air Quality Management District, Warriner had the trees and the space, a vegetation-free asphalt strip backed up against a safety fence. Lappen offered him the labor.
“This project was completely up my alley,” Lappen said. “It was everything I could have thought of, wanted or dreamed of in a planting project.”
At the end of February, municipal teams cleaned up the site, removing the cap of concrete and prepping for the eventual planting.
On April 28, the day after National Arbor Day, Lappen and a host of volunteers were ready to get the trees in the ground.
Popular culture holds that it’s difficult to get teenagers to do anything at 8 a.m. except hit a snooze button, but as the clock wound up Saturday morning, the team of teens gathered where 22nd Street meets Michigan Avenue, shovels in hand.
The process is technically simple — dig a hole as deep as the root ball on the end of the young tree and approximately twice as wide. Place the tree inside the hole, and fill it in with soil, but not too high to invite crown rot to the new plant.
Tie the sycamore to stakes placed immediately to the sides, and a tree is planted. Repeat between 19 and 24 more times.
That’s hard work, particularly getting the stakes in the ground, which requires a heavy piece of metal placed on top of the stake that a person lifts and then lets fall, driving the pole downward.
“A day of planting trees is a workout,” Warriner said, watching the young men and women attack the ground with shovels.
In 10 years, with thoughtful care and pruning, the trees will grow to 20 or 30 feet in height, just below the power lines that stretch over the site. Over the course of the next century, Santa Monica officials have committed to monitoring the trees’ growth and reporting back to the Forest Service for use in their studies.
But it’s in two decades that the newly-planted sycamores will have their greatest impact.
“Twenty years from now, these kids will be driving their kids to school,” Warriner said. “They’ll be able to tell their kids, ‘I planted those trees.’ There’s an immense amount of pride in that.”