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Chop, chop

As Mayor Greg Nickels moves to close a tree-cutting "loophole," it's time for a complete rethink of Seattle's rules and regulations regarding trees. And we better act fast.
Seattle's Portage Bay neighborhood on the north side of Capitol Hill. (Chuck Taylor)

Seattle's Portage Bay neighborhood on the north side of Capitol Hill. (Chuck Taylor) None

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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Comments:

Posted Wed, Sep 10, 4:34 p.m. Inappropriate

C'mon Knute. Stop giving voice to lies.: You very know that this statement is not supportable and is someone's fantasy:

"... the city's extensive tree survey determined that the major loss of tree canopy is on private, not public, land. In other words, parks and greenbelts are maxed out. The significant tree loss – some 1 million trees (net) since 1972, the city estimates – is mostly on private land. It's death by a million cuts: smaller yards, denser development, greenbelt incursions, fewer vacant lots, aging trees, more monster houses, etc."

Are you a Republican, who just makes things up? You know very well (from my emails to you) that via the Public Disclosure process I have asked the City for documentation about these wild loss of tree claims – and they haven't come back with anything! Zero. Nada. They simply cannot support these wild statements about tree loss because they are not true i.e. they are lies. You (and whomever you are talking to at the City) just have to stop making things up to fulfil your own fantasy. Why do you continue to spread these untruths?

Posted Wed, Sep 10, 6:24 p.m. Inappropriate

Can we really enforce this?: I don't see a solution here. If the problem really is individuals cutting down trees on their property (which makes sense to me), and if the city then creates some law with teeth that will, say, imprison those who cut down too many trees on their own property, how do you prove it? Usually with small, civil stuff like this (ie, not murder, rape, assault, etc.), the problem is that the law is clear and you know a person has broken the law, but there's no effective penalty regarding the law. Seems like in this case, you'd have a tough time proving that someone actually did the damage. Does the city have to take pictures of every property to determine where they are now, and then after someone cuts down their trees, the city goes back and says, "look, before you had 18 trees on your property; now you have 7 -- you're going to jail, son"?

I guess you could use overhead shots from Google to provide the 'before' pictures. Maybe that bit isn't as hard as I'm thinking it is. But what if they say they didn't do it -- that someone snuck onto their property and did it? I'm thinking of the trees killed along the Burke-Gilman trail: file all the police reports you want; other than looking to see whose views will be improved, and then charging them based on incredibly circumstantial evidence, how could the police possibly track down the perpetrator of a crime like that?

Wouldn't it be better to just continue to promote planting more trees? I remember back in 1999/2000/2001 or so, when I planted three fruit trees at my house in Wedgwood and got significant rebates from the city to do that. It might not have been much, but it was a net gain of three trees while I owned that property.

Would we get a better result by encouraging folks to plant more trees, by talking about their benefits and providing monetary encouragement, than by trying to prosecute those who do something they're allowed to do on their own property?

I don't know; I don't have an axe to grind or a point to make. I'm just thinking on the keyboard; that's all. I welcome insight from others who have more intelligent (or intelligible) points of view.
pmac

Posted Wed, Sep 10, 7:50 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: C'mon Knute. Stop giving voice to lies.: David: You know this is information contained in the city's extensive urban forest study. I have addressed some of your criticisms and found one valid: that the methods used to measure canopy in 1972 (satellite imagery) and the present time (LIDAR) are apples and oranges. Even so, the images suggest extensive tree loss. In my Dec. 5, 2007 story going into this in detail, the city's chief urban forester, Mark Mead, reiterated the city's tree-loss estimates for Seattle proper (one million). You have accused the city of lying but have offered no proof of that. Obviously, the city should comply with your pubic disclosure requests and I'll be interested to see what turns up.

Posted Wed, Sep 10, 9:27 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: C'mon Knute. Stop giving voice to lies.: You have got it backwards, Knute.

The burden is not on me to prove that the facts you offer are false.

The burden is on YOU (and those at the City who opine as you do) to document that your statements are accurate, and by reference to original research, not secondary sources which only cite other secondary sources.

And as a matter of fact, with respect to my Public Disclosure request, the City had NOT been able to produce documentation which substantiates these claims of great tree losses. If you would do some research (as opposed to opining) you'd see how hollow these claims of great tree loss are. Where did you get this one million tree figure? I have spoken at length with Mark Mead and he offers no documentation whatsoever for such a claim.

Go do some research and get some facts and stop believing things simply because you want to believe them. It's sad and comical that are willing to believe stuff up to suit your own view of reality.

Oh well, I guess Palin has inspired you to simply brazen it out and keep repeating the same lie.

Posted Wed, Sep 10, 11:52 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: Can we really enforce this?: Good issues!

The BG issue is a little different in that the trees were cut on public lands. For trees cut on private lands, I think the enforcement would be easier.

This is just like land use codes. Not everyone gets a permit, and the city figures out who did it illegally by either chancing across it or being told by an area resident. This would functionally be the same.

There are carbon exchange dollars, stormwater credit dollars, and conservation easement dollars available here, if we get more creative. Education about tree benefits will work for most and financial incentives will work for much of the rest.

Other cities who adopted re-tree programs earlier than Seattle (like Los Angeles) have discovered the only way to reach their urban cover goals is to prevent tree loss on private lands. Recently, Mayor Nickels has talked about needing to plant more trees on private land to reach the goal. That does need to happen, but without slower tree loss on private lands we'll never make a dent in the urban forest cover goals.
ddmiller

Posted Thu, Sep 11, 7:07 a.m. Inappropriate

RE: C'mon Knute. Stop giving voice to lies.: David: The source, as I wrote in my reply, for the one million tree figure is Mark Mead in an interview with me last year.
And, no, if you call someone a "liar," you must back that up with proof. You are saying Mark Mead and the authors of Seattle's tree study are outright lying.

Posted Thu, Sep 11, 7:59 a.m. Inappropriate

RE: C'mon Knute. Stop giving voice to lies.: Oh Knute.
You are probably a nice guy so don't try to make this personal by asking me to insult you by calling you a liar. But I will say that you look to me like a man practicing to be a Republican, someone who just believes what he wants to believe and has no understanding of a reality-based conversation. :)

Trying to take seriously your assertion that I have to prove you wrong is impossible. It's commonsense that the person who makes the factual assertion has the burden of proving it. YOU and Mark are making the assertion. You go prove it. The fact is that there are NO studies demonstrating from original research the change in Seattle tree canopy one way or another between the 1970s and now. Nada. Nothing. So I can't prove you are wrong. But you guys are the believers. So you have the burden.

If you can't or won't do that, I will just continue to say that you are not a reputable source. I would never call you an outright liar because I don't think you intend to lie but you simply have a disregard for facts which don't comport with your own very negative view of the world.

Posted Thu, Sep 11, 9:23 a.m. Inappropriate

RE: Can we really enforce this?: Thanks for the points. Particularly the one about land use codes; that clarifies it for me.

Also, I do accept the points about limiting loss on private lands; the tit-for-tat argument above notwithstanding, how much of the city does the city own, not including roads? And the biggest areas it does own either have a lot of trees (Ravenna Park, Seward Park, Discovery Park, etc.) or has lots of spaces set aside for recreation that can't have trees (ie, ball fields, pools). Perhaps Magnuson Park is the biggest one where the city could plant a lot of trees.

But still -- if, aside from roadways, one guessed that the city owns, say, 10% of ownable land in the city (total guess on my part -- someone correct me, please), then it really is all up to private citizens.

(That'd be a neat comparison: tree canopy on public vs. private lands; plus, say, grass or other surfaces [EXCLUDING ballfields] on public vs. private lands. Would we be able to prove that the city is doing far more than its fair share in supporting trees? Would it be a way of waking up the citizenry? "Look, the city supports lots of trees. But the city only owns 10% of ownable land in the city. It's up to you, the private landowner, to plant just one or two trees for every 1/10th of an acre of land you have. If you do that, we'll once again truly be a city of trees." -- Ignore my numbers; I'm just making them up. It's the idea or concept I'm trying to get at.)

Or what if experts just defined the number of trees (or percentage of coverage?) we should see in any given space, and we determine which owners -- public or private -- meet that threshold? Then, we see that Seward Park and Ravenna Park have tons of trees. And my small lot has, say, four trees, which is sufficient, while my neighbor on one side has a dozen, and is really doing great, and my neighbor on the other has just one, and isn't doing as much. Some software that took overhead images, determined lot lines, what's a tree and what's a structure, and how the trees are doing, could then spit out a report for each owner in the city. That'd be neat. Expensive, but neat.

More random musings. Apologies...
pmac

Posted Thu, Sep 11, 11:02 a.m. Inappropriate

Tree love: The problem, it seems to me, is that people don't value trees as much as we should, for our own sakes.

I guess the problem is that people, of course, want to use their land as they choose, and it's hard to stop people from cutting trees down for all the reasons we do--to make room for a bigger house, to "improve" a view. But we'd be smarter if we valued trees more highly and made them a higher priority.

Trees do a lot for our safety and comfort. They improve the air, they cool us on hot days, they stabilize hillsides and regulate the flow of streams. They prevent floods. They also provide us with songbirds and beauty, but even thinking in the most basic economic sense they're precious to us, or should be.

Posted Fri, Sep 12, 1:19 a.m. Inappropriate

Make like one...Oh...you already did!: It's funny to watch you ditch that rhetorical punching bag--the "Nanny-State"--as soon as it became convenient. A means to and end, huh? How about...No. All the supposed benefits of trees you allude to don't necessarily apply to an Urban area. There are numerous measures that could be implemented without infringing on our rights, though (a permit does infringe upon the exercise of my rights, after all). Restoration of wetlands and watersheds would be a great start. Unfortunately, our leaders are unwilling to make real decisions. Meanwhile, hypocrites like you advocate giving away my rights, because you don't see the need for yours. Pathetic.

Furthermore, the City could easily increase the "tree canopy" if that was the actual goal, and you'd recognize that, if that's what you were advocating. But you don't live here, and it's not. So, let's start with all the lawns that are watered and maintained on the tax-payer's dime. I can think of numerous ball-fields, and expansive areas occupied by nothing but lawn. A Parks-to-Forests initiative would scale back the Parks Department and satisfy your fetish for trees. Better yet, let's focus on all of the public space simply given away to our car's. Oh wait...we weren't actually trying to address the problem, but rather advance an agenda, while pretending to do something.

If every Seattle homeowner cut down one tree (most likely their only one), reduced the household consumption of meat, reduced car trips, and purchased the bulk of the groceries from a local producer,we'd do more to reduce our "carbon-foot" and improve health without infringing on the rights you don't care about. But you...you make deceptive claims in attempt to influence opinion in a city you don't reside. You know...shave you beard, and you and Nickels would dissemble...I mean resemble one another.

Posted Fri, Sep 12, 8:17 a.m. Inappropriate

RE: Make like one...Oh...you already did!: You don't know what you're talking about. I live in Seattle.

Posted Sun, Sep 14, 10:47 p.m. Inappropriate

Go get em Knute! Save the emerald city from the wicked witch of the saw.: You know I'll be one of the first to say that Knute Berger is a hippie-liberal who needs a haircut and a shave. If you read some of my comments on his past articles, I've criticized him pretty hard. But I gotta side with him on this one.

I can see where the property owners are coming from. 'It's my land, I can do what I want!' I remember many many days raking the seemingly countless fir boughs strewn about my father's back yard after a thunderstorm. It was a pain in the butt!

I look back at it now and thank my lucky stars that I grew up in a neighborhood that had such an abundance of natural beauty. But I think it goes deeper then that. I had a friend who cleared the trees out of his acre property some years back. Not long after he lost a good 6 feet of his property to errosion. No doubt a wall could have prevented that, but the trees could have as well. He just didn't like the upkeep. And even if the numbers aren't quite right, the air and water quality do take a hit with every tree that gets the axe.

We live in a society. And sometimes it is appropriate to consider the greater good. Some would rather have us live in another concrete jungle then a real one. Then what would become--another metropolis of cement and steel with no life, no pulse of mother earth in our veins.

A tree here and a tree there, next thing we know we're taking out the soundgarden to put a new Starbucks. After all, they're just plants right? and I could really go for an Iced-Frape-Mocha-latte-chino. I'm all about using our natural resources and personal as well as economic expansion. But I'm also about being responsible and looking out for the good of whole over the one. A line must be drawn.

We're not talking about remote forests, we talking about the home of some 500,000+ people. A beautiful city known for it's greenery! I for one do not want the city I love fall victim to those who just don't seem to care.

So Knute, I'm with you! (But if you ever bring it up I'll deny the whole thing.)
tstcusmc

Posted Mon, Sep 15, 8:36 a.m. Inappropriate

RE: Go get em Knute! Save the emerald city from the wicked witch of the saw.: It's kind of funny how David Sucher asks if Knute Berger is "a Republican, who just makes things up?" and Tstcusmc writes that he's a "hippie-liberal who needs a haircut and a shave."

Knute, you truly are all things to all people :)

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