The Seattle dailies report that Mayor Greg Nickels wants to close the tree "loophole," the way the law allows property owners to cut trees down before the permit process so they don't have to get permission to chop them later — which is more or less what happened in the Ingraham High School situation. When the city balked at the Seattle School District's plan to lay waste to the woods, the schools withdrew their permit application and moved to chop them down anyway. A judge has halted that for the moment, thank goodness.
Nickels' effort is a small step to stop the city's urban forest from being clear-cut. Tree-lovers are frustrated with the city for talking out of both sides of its mouth: greasing the skids for dense development with pro-growth rhetoric and permit approvals while at the same time waving a warning flag — some would say too feebly — that the city's trees are coming down too fast. The city's tree canopy is about half of what it should be, and far smaller than 35 years ago.
In a guest column in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in August, Nancy Dickeman offered a good summary of the contradictions:
An Eastern Washington judge recently sentenced a citizen to prison for the destruction and theft of dozens of mature cedars, saying "it is like stealing a part of the history of our country." Yet in Seattle, the mayor, Seattle Public Schools and Camp Fire, conjoined with developers, are all too eager to raze two of three of our city's remaining urban forests, to steal our history and the Earth's riches, in the quest for excessive density and a quick buck.
The reference to Camp Fire concerns the so-called Waldo Woods which neighborhood activists in Maple Leaf have been trying to save. A city hearing examiner ruled against the trees earlier this month. The Maple Leaf Community Council is hoping mayor Nickels will intervene. Otherwise, the trees are doomed.
The city faces a number of challenges in saving trees. One is achieving some internal coherence with its own policies, such as approving mature tree cutting while at the same time condemning it. Then there are the sickos that take tree-killing into their own hands. Yet another is the issue of property rights. In response to the mayor's attempt to close the tree loophole, Seattle City Councilmember Richard McIver had this to say in The Seattle Times:
"I don't think it's any of [the mayor's] business," McIver said. The mayor should focus on developing the tree canopy on city land, he said. "There was not a condition when [the school] bought the property that you don't touch the trees."
McIver appears to be arguing that preserving the trees is some kind of a property taking. That same argument could be applied to any new environmental regulation based on updated information because, by definition, new data wouldn't pre-date the purchase of any existing piece of property. If, for example, we learn new facts about global warming, are we supposed to sit still and only take action when and if a piece of land changes hands? There is, of course, no law that gives any property owner the right to damage community property and health. Arguably, that's what rampant tree cutting does.
The killing of trees and the reduction of the city's tree canopy is a citywide problem. Every tree lopped down contributes to the larger problem of air quality, water quality, carbon emissions, reduced habitat, etc. The city has a plan to plant more trees and restore the urban forest, but it has to also aggressively preserve mature trees that still have a significant life span ahead of them (nobody's arguing about saving diseased, dying, or dangerous trees). Replanting isn't keeping up with tree loss or tree growth, and younger trees don't offer the benefits of mature groves.
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