The University of Washington’s campus construction — including the Burke Museum expansion — has had a profound impact on its once leafy environment.
Tree-cutting stories have always captivated Seattle, including the brazenly illegal clear-cut in West Seattle in March 2016 (the final penalties were just announced), as well as last year’s removal of an “exceptional” ponderosa pine, also in West Seattle, where I live. But on the University of Washington campus — where I worked for five years until this past August — our urban forest is getting hacked away with far too little publicity or pushback.
Walking to and through the UW campus daily for the past several years, I watched scores of trees disappear. Most of the cutting happens over the weekend, so the first time you notice a removed tree is often by its negative space — an unexpected view of sky, a brick wall you hadn’t seen before — or a pile of logs and sawdust in the mud. This past spring, I remember looking for a tree that used to live right in front of More Hall. Its bright purple blossoms were usually some of the first to pop in late February. Yet that tree, along with dozens of others, had been cut down to make way for the new Computer Science & Engineering building.
I’m not questioning the value of that facility, or of other similar projects that have resulted in the loss of trees on university grounds. The walking bridge to the Husky Stadium Link station has been a tremendous boon for transit access, and the new Life Sciences Building will be a major upgrade for the Biology Department. The same is true for the Burke-Gilman Trail redesign along Pacific Street, which has created a safe, speedy pipeline along the south end of campus. But the cost of these construction projects to our campus canopy — including for the Burke Museum expansion — has been utterly immense. It should be a much bigger story.
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The cynic in me has even started seeing promotion of UW’s beloved cherry trees as a red herring to distract us from trees and green space sacrificed elsewhere. Students and staff get excitable email updates about when the peak bloom should arrive, but not a peep about the big fresh stumps on the south side of the Mechanical Engineering Building. Nor did we hear a word of advance notice in 2014 about the 24 Kwanzan cherry trees removed from Rainier Vista for the Montlake Triangle project. Too old and unhealthy to transplant, the university whispered unconvincingly after the fact, and only after an outcry. You’ll find few public records or stories of these cuts, and it really feels like the university is chipping away at its soul, tree by tree.
The countdown to this year’s cherry blossom bloom will be underway soon, and it’s a perfect opportunity to remind UW that its campus is a public resource that belongs to all of us in Washington. There’s no excuse for a leading research institution — with top-notch faculty, students and funding — not being able to plan for campus growth and preserve the natural character of its environment.