Closing the open season on trees

Seattle considers new, and over-due, limits of tree-cutting on private property.
Seattle considers new, and over-due, limits of tree-cutting on private property.

The Seattle Times has a story about city councilmember Richard Conlin's proposal to restrict the cutting of trees on private property. The new rules being considered would protect exceptional trees from cutting and would limit property owners to cutting no more than three trees per year that are six inches in diameter. Diseased or hazardous trees could still be taken down. The rules as proposed are still less strict than Kirkland and Redmond. According to the City, Seattle has suffered extensive tree loss over the last 30 years and its tree canopy is half what it used to be.

Weirdly, the Times article refers to the limitations as an example of Seattle expanding its role as "environmental nanny," but that suggests tree destruction is entirely about personal behavior and a relatively trivial matter. Call that the "Ballard perspective," as Seattle's old Scandinavians tended to view trees as tall grass to be mowed.

True, city nannyism — the regulation of personal behavior — is annoying and Seattle is full of it, with both the best and worst intentions. But the loss of trees, particularly mature trees, in Seattle is significant and has environmental consequences. Much of the tree and canopy loss is due to private cutting, says the City. Part of it is due to policies avidly promoted by the City, such as in-fill and higher densities. Some is also due to people building larger homes on their lots and gobbling open space. Limiting tree cutting is about regulating the built environment and is no more nannyism than zoning laws or building codes.

One important thing Conlin's tree protection proposal can do is begin to shift the balance in favor of trees over tree-cutting. I have argued that the burden of proof for public benefit should fall on tree-cutters, not on those who want to save them. This ethic needs to be embedded in our development rules as well.

Councilmember Tim Burgess is worried about intrusion on private property rights and the "fairly severe limitations" the proposed regs would impose. Councilmember Richard McIver has also previously worried about the rights of private tree-cutters. The Times says Burgess prefers an "incentives" system. Incentives are good too. Go ahead and offer some carrots, but you need a stick or two as well — Burgess, as a former cop, should understand that. But enforcement of the new rules will prove difficult. The City already can't police trees on public property, where vandals prey with virtual impunity on view-blocking trees. Nevertheless, it's long past time for Seattle to close the permanent open season on trees.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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