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.
Crosscut archive image.

Seattle's Portage Bay neighborhood on the north side of Capitol Hill. (Chuck Taylor)

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.

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.

The other problem with McIver's approach is that 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.

Last spring, David Miller, president of the Maple Leaf Community Council and a Waldo Woods activist, laid out the issue this way in a guest column in the Times:

Bottom line: We're still losing trees. The mayor's Department of Planning and Development has allowed the destruction of hundreds of trees, often replaced by town homes and condos. So-called single-family "infill development" contributes to even more tree loss. When neighbors complain, they are often labeled as "NIMBY" — "not in my backyard" — and chastised that "density is green."

Increased density can be positive for the environment, but density is not automatically green. Seattle citizens increasingly realize this is true. When they bus to work past a neighborhood parcel with mature trees, only to see the trees gone when they bus home, they instinctively know the town homes that spring up a few months later are not the benefit to our city's environment (or as affordable) as they are often billed to be.

I think what this argues, and what tree reform should reflect, is a movement from the default position of the city being in favor of cutting to being in favor of preservation.

Developers or private property owners who want to cut significant trees should be required to prove why this will not harm the environment. And the harm need not be in itself significant. As the city's own tree study says, it's the small, incremental decisions citywide that have been de-greening Seattle.

Designs that can accommodate density and smaller footprints while saving existing mature trees should be favored. There should be tighter rules on what can and can't be cut down. There should be an investigation to examine the practices of private tree-cutters, to ensure they are not scaring homeowners into unnecessary cutting. And for heaven's sake, let's put some teeth into the city's Heritage Tree program so that it's not OK to chop designated trees down at will. The burden of proof should be on the city's tree-cutters to convince us why tree loss does more good than harm.

In short, it's time for the city's tree lovers to take the city back.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.