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Seattle leaders have been making a big promise for more than 15 years: that our city will lead the nation in fighting climate change. And yet, Seattle is polluting as much as it was 25 years ago. What went wrong? How can we do better? Explore the stories in our new series, The Burning Question, below. our reporting team: David Hyde, Amy Radil, John Ryan. Editor: Gil Aegerter.

Seattle needs more trees. But who's counting?

It's not clear how many trees on private property in Seattle have been cut down for development projects.
KUOW Photo/Gil Aegerter
It's not clear how many trees on private property in Seattle have been cut down for development projects.

Tree advocates say if Seattle wants to do a better job counting and preserving trees, it should follow the lead of its suburbs.

Right now, the city is running on a complaint-based system. Carolyn Rodenberg said financial penalties for violations come too late. "We need to get it to where we're protecting the trees while they're still standing," she said.

One example: the notorious “arborcide” in West Seattle, where a group of West Seattle homeowners were accused of cutting down city-owned trees to enhance their views. This week the city reached a settlement in which they paid the city $800,000 – in total — for the loss of more than 150 trees on a slope at risk for landslides.

Rodenberg is the chair of Seattle advocacy group 150 Trees and Me, which is pressing the city to include specific acknowledgement of its climate goals in any new tree ordinance, and to factor in carbon sequestration and other aspects when putting a dollar value on trees.

Seattle’s climate goals emphasize the need to grow the city’s tree canopy beyond the current 28 percent, especially in industrial and commercial areas. But despite these goals, city officials say they don’t have the ability to track how many trees are being removed on private land amidst the development boom.

Members of Seattle’s Urban Forestry Commission said in written comments last month that current city code does little to protect trees cut down on private land, and has “serious problems with compliance.” 

[asset-images[{"caption": "A screenshot of an interactive map of trees in the right of way. Most are on private land (represented by red dots). The rest are on different types of public land.", "fid": "142542", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201802/treesbyowner.JPG", "attribution": "Credit City of Seattle"}]]

Check out: City maps that track the number of 'street trees' on public and private land

Commission members are asking Seattle officials to follow the lead of cities like Lake Forest Park, which tracks tree removal through permits. That city’s last inventory in 2009 said tree canopy stands at 45 percent. 

City Councilmember John Resha said they updated their rules last year to better achieve their goal of maintaining that number. “We would love to grow that coverage, but let’s start with no net loss,” he said.

Resha said permits are required before removing a tree, and trees designated as “exceptional” cannot be removed.

“Our community values them to the point that, ‘we don’t cut down our grandparents.’ They have a whole different ecosystem and value,” he said.

Seattle City Councilmember Rob Johnson said he is developing an ordinance to increase protections for trees on private property; he expects to bring it to the council this spring. 

Councilmember Lisa Herbold also sits on the planning commitee that will consider the changes. She represents the district that includes West Seattle.

She said she hopes the financial sanctions and news coverage will deter anyone thinking of following the example of the homeowners who chopped down the trees on public land. 

“I feel a little bit like the Lorax council member here, but I feel like the trees in our city are actually a capital asset to the city,” Herbold said. 

She said a 2012 report estimated the replacement value of the city’s trees at $4.9 billion. That amount represents the value of the trees plus the soil stability and air quality they produce. 

“My takeaway is I really want the residents of the city to see trees as a valuable asset that we should preserve,” Herbold said.  

[asset-images[{"caption": "More than 100 trees around the city are recognized as \"Heritage Trees\" because of their size or historical significance.", "fid": "142543", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201802/heritagetrees.JPG", "attribution": "Credit City of Seattle"}]]Lake Forest Park Councilmember Resha said trees provide tangible benefits in terms of managing stormwater, and the city expects property owners to maintain tree canopy just as they would other city infrastructure. That means keeping a certain percentage of canopy on different types of land parcels.  

Those involved with tree regulations in Lake Forest Park say the rules are still a work in progress. 

David Kleweno, who co-chairs Lake Forest Park’s Tree Board, said some homeowners have complained that developers are better able to pay the fees associated with the permit system. The city is currently hiring an arborist to try and bring down the costs of these consultations for property owners. 

Kleweno said they are also trying to figure out the verification process when homeowners agree to plant replacement trees. “The question is, how do we track that they were actually planted and the survival rate,” he said.  

Seattle’s Urban Forestry Commission notes that a permitting system is already in use in Seattle by city departments. The commission suggests that this system could be expanded “to cover all significant trees in Seattle.”

The commission’s comments are part of an effort initiated by Tim Burgess while he was interim mayor. Last October he issued an executive order calling on city staff to "bolster Seattle tree protections" and strengthen enforcement. 

Bryan Stevens with the department of construction and inspections said one proposed rule on hazardous tree removal "will be focusing on ways of remediating the issue, rather than simply removing the entire tree. For instance, falling limbs or fruit can be rectified through regular maintenance and pruning and do not always require tree removal."

Darren Morgan, who manages urban forestry for the Seattle Department of Transportation, said 23 percent of the city’s tree canopy is in public rights of way, and he’s working to preserve and expand that tree cover. 

Projects have included tree planting and de-paving in industrial neighborhoods. “Street trees add so much to neighborhoods,” he said. 

The presence of street trees “encourages people to spend more time outside, encourages people to walk and bike, reduces the temperature in many cases of areas within the city, slows traffic speeds — the list goes on and on,” Morgan said.

Year started with KUOW: 2005