City tree protection not making the cut

By Lisa Stiffler
Seattle (June 17, 2007)- It might have been a dark, moonless night. Or even daytime, perhaps when people were at work or neighbors were out mowing lawns and making a racket. Whatever the exact time, someone recently stole into a patch of West Seattle woods toting ropes and a chain saw. The person climbed towering Douglas firs a half-century old. In a matter of hours, nearly a dozen trees were butchered, their tops lopped off, clearing the way for unimpeded views from homes uphill.

“I am outraged,” said Tom Rasmussen, a city councilman who lives nearby. “Anyone who lives in this community knows you cannot go cutting trees on someone else’s property.” Some of the damaged West Seattle trees were on private land; others were within the Me-Kwa-Mooks Park southeast of Alki Point.
City leaders are trying to re-green Seattle by saving older trees and planting new ones on public and private property. But it’s an uphill battle to grow the city’s tree canopy. The amount of tree cover in Seattle has withered from 40 percent in 1972 to about 18 percent today, city officials said. People illegally cut trees to improve views, because they’re concerned about trees toppling onto their houses, and because they find their needles and leaves to be messy.
Even more trees are lost to legal cutting. Some Puget Sound cities require permits when large trees or large numbers of trees are cut down on private property — but not Seattle. In the Emerald City, there are no restrictions on chopping down trees on private lots, except in sensitive areas such as slopes or shorelines and with new construction. With the explosion in the number of smaller homes being demolished to make way for townhouses or larger homes, trees are getting squeezed out.
“We do not have a culture of respect for trees,” said Cass Turnbull, founder and president of PlantAmnesty, a Seattle group that works for tree conservation. “It’s really a race between development and tree preservation.”
Trees are beneficial because they help clean the air, consume greenhouse gases, provide habitat for birds and other animals, reduce the amount of polluted stormwater that harms fish and provide cooling shade. Scientists find that their presence even provides emotional, intellectual and physical benefits to people.
Concerted efforts are under way to re-tree the city. In 2004, Mayor Greg Nickels and the nonprofit Cascade Land Conservancy teamed up to launch the Green Seattle Partnership, a project aimed at restoring the city’s 2,500 acres of forested parks by 2025. After decades of neglect, much of the woods are overrun with tree-killing invasive ivy and other weeds.
By last year, the partnership had started the multiyear process of restoring the woods on 164 acres of parkland, and the conservancy had met its 2006 goal of raising more than $400,000. This year, work will begin on an additional 100 acres, and the group is on track for hitting its 2007 fundraising goal. The restoration work is being done primarily with volunteer labor.
Also, the Seattle Parks and Recreation budget for the partnership has grown, from $250,000 last year to $750,000 this year and $1.2 million next year.
While the partnership focused on parks, the city later this year will finalize a 30-year Urban Forest Management Plan, which sets citywide goals for increasing the amount of land covered by trees from 18 percent to 30 percent.
It includes improving maintenance of city-owned trees, an ongoing issue for residents upset over the city’s removal of trees on public property, including a recent challenge to the cutting of trees in Pioneer Square. The plan would strengthen incentives for tree planting and preservation. City leaders are proceeding cautiously with restrictions on chopping down privately owned trees.
“We have to have a pretty good public discussion about what we can do to discourage cutting,” Councilman Rasmussen said. When it comes to private property rules, “people are very, very sensitive about that.” Turnbull said that hers and other tree-loving groups are trying to unite so they can lobby collectively for better tree protections.
An important piece that’s missing is a widespread public education program about the value of trees and how to take care of them. City officials said that’s coming. Topping trees can kill them when fungi attack the sawed-off section, causing the tree to rot from the inside. Trees can grow a new top near where the original top was cut off, but it will be more weakly attached to the tree and at risk of snapping off in a storm.
In the West Seattle case, approximately the top 20 feet of the roughly 100-foot-tall trees were removed. The private landowner reported the crime after he discovered the tree tops still left on the ground. “This is pretty bad,” said Mark Mead, senior urban forester for Seattle Parks and Recreation. “The parks department doesn’t allow the topping of conifers.” When it comes to firs, branches can be removed to open up windows of views without killing the trees, he said. This is the fourth case this year of trees illegally being hacked back or chopped down on park property to benefit nearby residents.
It’s hard to catch the culprits, who often work quickly and when people aren’t around. Mead suspects that small, out-of-town crews are to blame. They’re likely not certified arborists, who know the harm of topping trees. They’re more akin to loggers, he said.
Then there’s the matter of who’s bankrolling the dirty deeds. “We generally look up the hill,” Mead said. But it’s hard to prove who did it. “You can’t go pointing fingers.” Senior Judge Jerome Farris of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was fined $500,000 a few years ago after 120 trees were felled in Colman Park, improving his view of Lake Washington. The park has been replanted.
Seattle police officers and detectives still are investigating the West Seattle case. “It was done by a professional logger,” said Lt. Steve Paulsen. Beyond that, they’re not sure who did it. “We don’t have the smoking gun yet, or the smoking chain saw, if you’d rather.” But some residents look more suspect to him than others. “This one house has a beautiful view now,” he said. “So go figure.”
Related Resources:
Seattle Post Intelligencer
Seattle Urban Forest Management Plan
Green Seattle Partnership