The Accidental Environmentalist

Photo by Jack GouldJim Caviola is no tree hugger, which is probably a good thing for the trees. Most of the spindly saplings he's lavishing with love these days would probably snap into kindling in the embrace of a guy his size, which we'll ballpark at six-foot-four and 250 pounds. Jim, an attorney, is a big boy, and at age 45, he still acts like one. He's restoring a cherry-red, 1946 Ford Woody street rod in his garage, but he rides around in a 1988 white-on-rust—not just the color, the actual corrosion—Lincoln Town Car he bought for $1,600. It's as if somebody had put magnesium wheels on the Seal Beach Pier.

“I'm not a rich man, but I do okay,” says Caviola, sipping coffee with one hand and steering with the other. “I'm frugal with the things I don't care about. But I'll spend money on the things I do. Lately, I've kinda gone crazy on trees.”

During the past four years, Caviola and his brother-in-law Bill Vermeulen have planted 600 young trees in the neighborhoods of Seal Beach. Lots of grass, too. To do it, they've removed some 71,000 pounds of concrete parkways, renting jackhammers to smash it and borrowing trucks to haul it away.

“It wasn't until after I got the trees planted that it dawned on me they needed to be kept alive,” Caviola admits. “So I bought a water truck.”

Caviola has become obsessed with trees—and upset with the dismissive attitude toward them by some citizens and many city officials. “We've got business owners who want to cut down trees on Main Street because they think the trees are costing them money by blocking their signs,” says Caviola. “We've got people in neighborhoods who want to cut down trees because the shade or the leaves hurt their lawns. And then we've got the city engineers who see everything in terms of maintenance and convenience, who want to cut down trees because the branches reach electrical lines or their roots buckle concrete. Kill a tree to save some concrete? That's bullshit! They're treating us like we live in a kennel!”

Caviola is on a roll. “If the city likes pavement so much, why doesn't it concentrate on repairing the streets and alleys? They're lined with cracks and full of potholes.” He goes on and on, pausing after every two or three criticisms to beg that his diatribe be kept out of the paper. “Don't make me sound bad, okay?” he asks. “I'm not trying to make enemies here. Really, I'm not. It's just that I get so tired of the—you know—arrogance.”

That's how all this started for Caviola, a transplant from Connecticut who worked as a bartender and waiter to put himself through law school and then rented with his wife in Seal Beach for 20 years while saving to build their home on Ocean Avenue.

“Everything was great until we wanted to put a tree in front of the house,” Caviola recounts. “The city said no. I said yes. And you'd think I was kidding if I told you what I had to deal with and do before I could get that tree in front of my house.”

Thus energized, Caviola undertook a mission to re-tree all of Seal Beach. “I kinda made myself an instant expert, the same way I do when I have to prepare a legal case,” he says. “I found out that trees aren't complicated. In fact, what makes them important is that they're so basic. Besides their beauty, they produce oxygen. Their shade lowers temperatures, which in turn lowers cooling bills, which reduces the use of fossil fuels, which reduces pollution. And replacing concrete with trees and grass reduces urban runoff, which reduces pollution in the ocean. It's all tied together.”

As he researched, Caviola discovered that funding for tree-planting projects—urban reforestation—is abundant. The most recent pool of money in California was created last year with the passage of the Safe Neighborhood Parks, Clean Water, Clean Air and Coastal Protection Bond.

“But to get some of that money—money that comes from the taxes we pay—you have to write for a grant,” Caviola says. “And if you can believe it, Seal Beach did not even apply.”

So Caviola has decided to take matters into his own hands again. He has formed a nonprofit organization called Trees for Seal Beach and is throwing a huge beach party. He hopes to raise enough money to pay a professional who can help them get a tree-planting grant.

“A professional grant-proposal writer charges about $5,000, but the payoff can be hundreds of thousands of dollars,” says Caviola. “The next round of applications comes up in September, and we're hoping to have four grant requests—$20,000 worth—submitted then. And we hope to raise all the money with this party.

“We've already sold enough to break even. We're hoping to turn this into an annual start-of-summer event and maybe get people to change their attitudes about trees a little bit.”

Caviola pauses.

“I know this isn't gonna save the world,” he says, “but I've almost accidentally taken it up as a cause. It started out with me and a tree, then a few more trees, then a few more and then a cause and then a water truck and now an organization. It's interesting the way one thing has led to another. And now to this big-ass party. Maybe that will happen for a few other people, too. Either way, though, it's going to be a great party.”

Help Re-Tree Seal Beach, featuring the Eddie Reed band and the dyno-tones, at the Seal beach pier, Eighth Street paring lot, Seal Beach, (714) 235-0880. Sat., 5-10 p.m. Fully catered. $100 per person.

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