Plant Amnesty founder Cass Turnbull is helping TreePAC in its fight to save the city’s trees by turning abandoned substations into pocket parks.
CASS TURNBULL, expert pruner, tree advocate, landscaper and founder of Plant Amnesty, has a new cause. Those who have known Turnbull won’t be surprised to learn she isn’t retiring any time soon. “Most of my friends are slowing down,” she says. “I’ve doubled my workload, and it wasn’t light to begin with.”
Not that Turnbull, at age 65, is abandoning her advocacy for trees. For years she’s worked tirelessly “to end the senseless torture and mutilation of trees and shrubs,” (Plant Amnesty’s tagline). She runs a landscape business, and especially loves rescuing aged gardens. Plant Amnesty offers a popular referral line, adopt-a-plant program and pruning classes in Spanish. How does Turnbull describe her contribution to Seattle’s green scene? “I’m a natural ranter, an equal opportunity offender.”
Lately she’s putting her energy into TreePAC, an independent political action committee to save Seattle’s trees.
“TreePAC has been an immense roller coaster of heartbreaks and breakthroughs,” says Turnbull, displaying the humor and sense of drama that have long made her a bigger-than-life figure in Seattle’s horticultural scene.
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A recent heartbreak began when Turnbull noticed signs notifying the public about trees to be cut down at a surplus piece of land in North Ballard. The trees in question were three big, healthy ornamental cherry trees on property that used to be a substation. Turnbull has hopes to turn these abandoned substations around the city, with their mature trees and shrubbery, into pocket parks. “We mobilized and showed up early in the pouring rain, and found stumps — they’d already cut the trees down,” says Turnbull. “I almost got arrested, but the police talked me down.” Just another day in the tree trenches.
Turnbull, who lives in Ballard, is realistic about our rapidly densifying city. “You can have both density and green space by building higher,” she says. “Urban green space must be at ground level.”
She bemoans code changes that allow more lot coverage, resulting in the “McMansions” being built around the city. She points out that the trees we depend on for shade and canopy grow on private as well as public land.
It hasn’t all been heartbreak. TreePAC has been able to stall the sale of several of Seattle’s 35 substations and prevent them from being clear-cut. The organization’s goals this year are to pass a strong tree-protection ordinance, improve the goals of Seattle’s comprehensive plan and keep the city from selling off surplus land for private development.
Turnbull, who claims she gets discouraged and quits about twice a week, finds reason for optimism. She applauds the general adoption of organic gardening practices, perhaps the biggest change during her 30-year green career. She applauds all the young people, the “ivy-pullers,” working in habitat restoration, and sees them as the future of the green movement in Seattle.
Beyond all the slogans, rabble-rousing and on-the-streets political action, is Turnbull the collaborator.
“I’m not acting alone in any of these big issues,” she points out. Seattle Green Spaces Coalition, which shares several board members with TreePAC, is a parallel organization that often takes the political lead.
From her vantage point in the front ranks of tree advocacy, what does Turnbull see for Seattle’s future?
“I feel like it’s a race to the death,” she says. “What’s Seattle going to be like in 50 years? If people don’t experience nature, they won’t protect or defend it. We need to save Seattle tree by tree.”