August 11, 2012 – Can Seattle’s Urban Forest be saved from DPD’s attempts to eliminate tree protections?

“I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.” Dr. Seuss

“Achieve no net loss of tree canopy cover¬age, and strive to increase tree canopy coverage to 40 percent, to reduce storm runoff, absorb air pollutants, reduce noise, stabilize soil, provide habitat, and mitigate the heat island effect of developed areas.” – Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan Tree policy

Seattle’s Urban Forest Management Plan (UFMP), adopted in 2007, establishes goals and a broad set of measures to be implemented in order to preserve and plant trees as well as restore the remaining public forested areas in the city. The UFMP has set a goal of achieving 30% tree canopy cover by 2037. According to results from a 2009 satellite assessment, Seattle is at about 23% canopy cover (+/- a few percentage points because of the complexity of how the assessments are made). A revised UFMP, part of a 5 year update, was just released.

In parallel, the Department of Transportation (SDOT) is updating the Street Tree Ordinance (last updated in 1961!), and the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) is undertaking a comprehensive update of the tree regulations governing private property.

SDOT in preparing the ordinance sought input from an advisory panel of residents, arborists, and City staff from several departments. The intent of their update is to provide greater protection to street trees and to codify current practices and procedures

DPD on the other hand has just released its second attempt at updating the private property tree regulations, developed without the level of public engagement employed by SDOT. Their previous attempt in 2010 was vociferously condemned as unacceptable because it largely ignored Council’s direction to develop legislation that would strengthen tree protections. The Urban Forestry Commission at the time said “that the deregulatory nature of the proposed changes neither preserves nor enhances Seattle’s Urban Forest, leaving it more vulnerable to attrition.”

But DPD’s latest tree ordinance draft would remove protections for trees now classified as “exceptional” or for tree groves, and continues to allow homeowners to cut up to 3 trees per year without oversight. As with its previous attempt, DPD focuses almost exclusively on rules during construction, and provides little protections for trees in the vast majority of the city that is not undergoing development.

Seattle’s policy towards trees lags behind other cities, such as Portland, Atlanta, and Vancouver, BC. And fundamentally, it has been suggested that consolidating oversight, regulation and enforcement for Seattle’s trees in a department without a conflict of interest (as DPD has) should be done.

Citizen engagement in the management of Seattle’s urban forest is crucial. From the Tree Ambassador program to trail maintenance to planting of street trees to the vigilance of tree advocates trying to shape DPD’s legislation, it is the public interest that is helping keep Seattle the Emerald City. Two such citizens are Steve Zemke and Ruth Williams, who will be speaking to us today on how Seattle is doing in achieving the goals we have set.

Steve Zemke is currently the Chair of the King County Democrats. He has also been active in the ongoing effort to protect Seattle’s urban forest and its trees as Chair of Save the Trees – Seattle. He worked with Councilmember Nick Licata to help create the Urban Forest Commission and fought to successfully reduce by over 50% the number of trees proposed to be removed at Ingraham High School.

Ruth Williams has been a volunteer forest steward for nearly 20 years. She is the Green Seattle Partnership Forest Steward at Beaver Pond Natural Area in Northgate, and actively involved in helping to protect Seattle’s forest canopy. Ruth is also president of Thornton Creek Alliance, a Seattle Tree Ambassador, and on the board of Save the Trees-Seattle.

You can see Save the Trees-Seattle’s response to DPD’s draft as delivered to the Urban Forestry Commission here:

by Bill Bradburd 8/6/12


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