By Alex Miller
TreePeople, an environmental nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a sustainable future for Southern California, celebrates the life and remarkable achievements of CEO Cindy Montañez who passed away on Saturday, October 21, 2023.
Since assuming her role in 2016, Cindy’s unwavering dedication, innovative vision, and commitment to environmental sustainability have driven TreePeople’s extraordinary growth and impact. Cindy leaves an indelible mark on our organization’s mission and impact – building the success it enjoys today. “Cindy loved TreePeople and she made sure that TreePeople would be in good hands at the time of her passing, and we are in good hands with co-Executive Directors Daniel Berger and Robyn Rehak. Cindy inspired us all,” said Chairman of TreePeople’s Board Philip Boesch.
Cindy brought a strong environmental justice focus to TreePeople, improving communities around Los Angeles that had historically low tree canopy coverage through increased tree plantings and workforce development. These tree planting and care programs now take place in 15 different regions of Southern California, including the Inland Empire and South Los Angeles, where over 4,000 people take part in planting over 2,000 trees each year that improve the health and beauty of these communities. TreePeople also distributes over 3,000 trees to residents each year.
Under Cindy’s visionary leadership, TreePeople has experienced tremendous growth in personnel, revenue and impact. Our workforce has nearly tripled, growing from approximately 40 employees to over 125, with ongoing recruitment efforts to support TreePeople’s expanding mission. In tandem, our revenue has seen a remarkable increase, soaring from $4.5 million in 2016 to approximately $14.5 million today.
TreePeople’s workforce development program began in 2021 to provide environmental career experience and training for youth and young adults from underserved communities where green jobs typically aren’t easily accessible. As part of the effort, we recently introduced the Cindy Montañez Young Leaders Program, which includes paid internships and apprenticeships for young people focused on green workforce experience in forestry and wetlands conservation.
Expanding programs to green schools and educating youth were also a key focus of Cindy. With a recent award of $15.6 million from the state, TreePeople will transform 17 LA County schools by removing nearly 500,000 sq. ft. of asphalt and creating vibrant learning gardens and natural spaces. With these funds, we will also be creating plans to green 6 Burbank Unified Schools, which desperately need the natural spaces. TreePeople’s Outdoor Equity initiative connects youth and their families with local natural and wildland areas through hands-on learning experiences. This initiative builds on TreePeople’s popular Eco-Tours and school outreach programs, which have reached more than 150,000 students under Montañez’s leadership.
TreePeople’s mountain forestry restoration projects have also significantly scaled up under Montañez: hosting over 3,000 volunteers and planting over 15,000 trees each year in the Angeles National Forest and other natural areas. As Cindy envisioned, TreePeople has become a key partner to the national and state forest services in preserving and restoring vital forests and conducting research initiatives as part of its ongoing commitment to forest restoration.
In 2019, with Cindy’s encouragement, TreePeople also became a major trustee of some of Southern California’s most critical natural lands when it acquired the Mountains Restoration Trust, which now operates as TreePeople Land Trust. The Trust has stewardship over 3,000 acres of land in the Santa Monica Mountains near Calabasas, keeping one of the most biologically diverse areas of the coastal mountains in its natural state.
Cindy’s dream was to share TreePeople’s model worldwide as the natural solution for climate change; she herself carried that message in 2021 to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow. “Everyone loves trees, whether they know it or not,” Montañez would say. She stressed that, “Trees are a-political. Everyone can get behind planting trees.”
Cindy has received many honors of late including the naming of January 19th, her birthday, as Cindy Montañez Day in the State of California. The beautiful Pacoima Wash Natural Park, a park that Cindy championed into existence, is now the Cindy Montañez Natural Park. With her affinity for monarch butterflies, the Cindy Montañez Pollinator Garden was planted and dedicated in September at TreePeople’s headquarters at Coldwater Canyon Park. Montañez loved how, like her, the butterflies were bi-cultural—making journeys across the US and Mexico border. “I want people to think of their loved ones when they think of la monarca, and if I am so lucky to be one of them, to think of me,” Cindy recently said. We invite all to visit and share in the beauty of the space where Montañez left such a tremendous mark.
In Montañez’s honor, TreePeople has established the Cindy Montañez Fund and welcomes all those who have been inspired by Montañez to make a donation in her name. All funds received will go directly towards the Cindy Montañez Young Leaders Program and the Cindy Montañez Pollinator Garden.
We will carry Cindy with us into the greener future that she worked to establish.
Alex Miller is the Director of Marketing & Communications at TreePeople.