SAN FERNANDO, Calif. — It’s a simple six-word motto and it’s one Cindy Montañez lives by: “Trees need people. People need trees,” she stated succinctly.

What You Need To Know

  • TreePeople CEO's calls trees "frontline defense" against risks associated with extreme heat

  • Cindy Montañez says urban greening is an issue of equity, since many underserved communities have tree canopy coverage that is less than 10%

  • Gov. Gavin Newsom forecasts a budget shortfall of $22.5 billion in the 2023-24 fiscal year

  • Proposed state budget would cut 40% of the funding for urban greening programs and another 27% from urban forestry

The San Fernando native didn’t grow up in a community with tree-lined streets, so when she was elected to City Council, at the age of 25, she knew exactly what she wanted to do.

“I literally had a napkin when I was running,” she said. “And I wrote down, 'What is my biggest priority?' And the top of the list was like, 'I'm going to plant trees in San Fernando.'"

That napkin was the seed that grew into a major greening movement. It started 20 years ago with some Australian Willows and hasn’t stopped since, with the final selection of slated trees planted just last month.

“We planted over 700 trees in this neighborhood,” Montañez said. “From McLean to Hubbard, Fifth to Fourth, almost every single house now has a tree in front of it.”

This isn’t about beauty — although the results are beautiful. Montañez, who is now the CEO of the nonprofit TreePeople, says this is about public health and equity.

“The trees are frontline defense,” she said. “When you think about extreme heat, the minute you walk out your door, the thing that could protect you the best is having shade.”

That used to be in short supply in San Fernando and is still the reality in many communities like it.

“What you see in many of these urban communities is that tree canopy coverage is less than 10%,” Montañez added.

Addressing that disparity is a big part of TreePeople’s mission so she was dismayed to see the proposed state budget included substantially less money for these types of projects. The first draft cuts 40% of the funding for urban greening programs and trims another 27% from urban forestry. Others areas slated for reductions or delays in promised funding are the Extreme Heat and Community Resilience Program, Community Resilience Centers, Regional Climate Resilience and Community Air Protection Program.

“These numbers are really critical because they impact real people's lives and real communities,” said Zahirah Mann, president and CEO of the South Los Angeles Transit Empowerment Zone.

SLATE-Z is an organization dedicated to the intersection of economic revitalization and climate sustainability.

“This is my favorite view in our office,” she said, pointing to a window above her head — through which she could see a mature tree.

The nonprofit recently moved into a space on the campus of Los Angeles Trade Technical-College, and from the office door, Mann can see the focus of her work laid out in front of her. The A line runs on the street below, students all around are preparing for careers in a new economy, and right outside is that towering tree.

“As we enter this climate resilient economy, in some ways, we're getting back to basics of getting to focus again on nature and the benefit of it, and ensuring that we're preserving our home,” Mann said. “The pieces around greening and around climate are elements that are really critical because we're talking about something that needs to happen today to sustain our future.”

Last year, SLATE-Z won a Transformative Climate Communities grant — another area that could see a 25% reduction over the next two years. The $35 million investment they received will help fund a project called the South LA Eco-Lab. Among other things, those plans include the planting of 6,000 trees in a neighborhood that Mann says is in the top 20% of environmentally devastated communities within the state.

“We have very poor tree canopy cover here," she said. “We are at the forefront of climate mitigation in this state… We have to continue to push and make sure that we see the level of investment that's needed to actually meet our climate goals.”

A lot can happen between now and June 15, when the budget needs to be finalized. Until then, Montañez plans to partner with other organizations to try to stress upon lawmakers why they feel this funding should be restored.

"We're facing with extreme weather conditions," she said. "We're facing air pollution. It makes no sense to go after these programs and cut the programs. What's on the line is equity... Are we gonna take care of the communities that are most vulnerable?”

The proposed budget was crafted to address an expected shortfall of $22.5 billion in the 2023-24 fiscal year. However, it states that “if there is sufficient General Fund in January 2024, reductions not otherwise delayed will be restored.”

Montañez hopes they will be, because while she understands the state is in the red, she feels cuts to urban greening shouldn’t be the solution.