The benefits of trees — from their grace and beauty to their gifts of cool, clean air and stress relief — are well-known and documented in study after study. Yet as the city grows, it is struggling to hold onto its trees, especially in poorer areas.
Seattle’s wealthiest neighborhoods are also its leafiest, a Seattle Times analysis shows.
On a recent hot summer day, brothers Stanley and Kenneth Mason were eating cherry pie under the cover of enormous bigleaf maples at their house in the Rainier Valley.
“We have the best spot on the lot,” Kenneth Mason said. “We love our trees. When we are up here, it is quiet and peaceful. I love the shade and I know they are providing clean oxygen for me to breathe. They keep my air fresh.”
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They are among the lucky ones in their neighborhood, where big trees are scarce — and continue to fall to the saw.
A look at median household income in the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data, together with a map of the city’s tree canopy by the city of Seattle, shows lower-income neighborhoods generally have the fewest trees.
Dividing the city’s 53 neighborhoods, including park and greenbelt areas into three income tiers of low ($21,095 to $54,712), middle ($56,963 to $74,302) and high ($74,398 to $110,992) shows the higher-income neighborhoods have 29 percent tree cover, dropping down to 18 percent in the lower-income tier.
The city’s most current estimate of tree-canopy coverage is seven years out of date and showed the city then was barely holding steady at 23 percent canopy overall. And that was before its current growth spurt, making it the fastest-growing big city in the U.S. in 2014, according to a census report.
Seattle isn’t doing even as well as some of its neighbors. Bellevue’s canopy coverage in 2007 — its most recent data — was 36 percent, even though the city has lost 20 percent of its tree cover since 1986, according to a report for the city by American Forests, a nonprofit forest-advocacy organization.
Portland gained tree cover in every zoning category between 2000-2010, when its coverage hit 30 percent citywide, according to a 2012 city report.
Redevelopment is the primary reason trees are cut down in Seattle. Also in the mix are a confusing matrix of city regulations, and underpowered enforcement to protect trees.
Regulation of tree cutting is scattered across three city departments — the Department of Transportation, the Department of Planning and Development and Seattle Parks and Recreation — depending on the type of tree and where it is growing.
Complaints against illegal cutting can only be called in during regular city business hours, though often tree cutting happens earlier in the morning or on weekends.
The city has been working to reverse the trend of losses. It has created the Seattle reLeaf program, which dispatches volunteer tree ambassadors to neighborhoods and encourages planting trees, provided free by the city.
Since 2009, the city has helped Seattle residents plant 4,000 trees in yards and along streets through the Trees for Neighborhoods Program.
The city’s Department of Transportation also planted more than 1,000 street trees in 2013, according to a progress report on the city’s Urban Forest Stewardship Plan, adopted in 2013.
To combat blackberries, English ivy, holly and other invasive plants inundating trees in city green belts and parks, the city has partnered with Forterra, the land conservation nonprofit, other groups and countless volunteers to reclaim and replant aging forests before they become ecological dead zones.
The city’s Heritage Tree program also allows residents to voluntarily nominate big, exceptional trees for special recognition, and protection. Except in an emergency, those trees aren’t to be cut down without a prior permit indicating they are a hazard.
The city will have to plant a lot more trees to reach its goal of a 30 percent canopy cover by 2037.
That goal was set in Seattle’s Urban Forest Management Plan in 2007, and reiterated in a 2013 update adopted by the city of Seattle’s Urban Forest Coalition, an interdepartmental working group. Its goal is to protect the health and maintain the benefits of the urban forest.
Meeting the 30 percent goal, itself a downgrade from the 40 percent canopy cover the city enjoyed in the 1970s, will be hard in part because trees — especially big trees that provide the most benefit — need space. Not just for a little while, but for the long haul, to enable trees to reach the girth and height and spreading crown that makes an exceptional tree, or grove.
It’s been a struggle to keep pace with the encroachment of pavement in Seattle.
The city’s redeveloping neighborhoods lost more than 35 percent of their tree cover between 2003 and 2007, city records show, “and we have lost a lot more trees since then,” said Mark Mead, arborist for the city’s Parks Department.
“What we saw was a denuding of the southern part of the city due to development,” Mead said. “The land in the core and northern areas was too costly to develop, and the south wasn’t, so the expansion of development went south, and the canopy disappeared down there.”
Trees on private land in Seattle have little protection, and in the contest between people’s desires for views, or sun, or space, the tree rarely wins, Mead noted.
“If someone has a view issue, the first words out of their mouth are usually, ‘I love trees, just not those trees.’ ”
The result is a pull of people to the attraction of the Emerald City that is struggling to continue to live up to its name.
“People come here for the jobs and the great climate and because it’s green,” said Cass Turnbull, founder of the nonprofit Plant Amnesty, and TreePAC, a political nonprofit formed to advocate for urban trees.
“Pretty soon it will just be for the jobs,” she said. “That would be sad.”
The past 150 years of clearing, regrading and development have left only remnants of the once vast forest that cloaked the Puget Sound region. Today about 3,700 acres of natural areas in forested parks and greenways, in addition to street trees and trees on private land, comprise the city’s total tree canopy.
Unlike on the East Coast, where non-American Indian settlement came earlier, leaving trees more time to regrow — and some truly mammoth older trees were never cut — the biggest, most venerable trees in the Seattle are just more than a century old, and most are far younger and smaller than that.
Even in city parks, more than half the trees are smaller than six inches in diameter, according to a city report.
The value of trees
Urban trees are a lifeline to nature not only in Seattle, but for the majority of residents in the United States, where 80 percent of the population lives in urban areas.
Trees are not a luxury, or small matter: Study after study has shown that neighborhoods with more trees usually have higher property values, better neighborhood interaction and lower crime rates. People with trees in their environment generally experience less stress. They are happier and better able to focus and solve problems.
In public debate, the focus usually is on the ecosystem services of trees: their ability to clean the air, filter the water, soak up stormwater and lower energy bills by shading summer heat and blocking winter winds.
The city’s urban forest was estimated to supply billions of dollars’ worth of free stormwater retention and filtration and millions of dollars in energy savings per year, according to a 2012 report by a collaboration of Forest Service and University of Washington researchers.
But the more subtle, human benefits of trees can be beyond quantification.
Especially big trees have a special effect on people. Some cultures have long known and even deliberately embraced the healthful effects of trees. In Japan, the practice of so-called “forest bathing” is well understood, with walking paths designed for the pleasure of a walk in deep woods, notes Kathleen Wolf, a research social scientist at the College of Forest Resources at the University of Washington.
On research trips to Japan she noticed a “reverence, appreciation and tolerance for old, misshapen, crotchety trees,” often supported with props, aflutter with prayers on notes attached.
City or forest?
But in Seattle big, old trees are often in the cross hairs.
Consider the case of Seattle’s Heritage Tree No. 121, a grand, old American elm just down the street from where the Mason brothers were eating that pie.
The elm that filled a front corner of Deborah O’Neal’s lot, gracing the house she grew up in, stood more than six stories high, and its crown spread 95 feet across. Its trunk was more than 4 feet around at chest height.
But O’Neal said she got tired of the tree’s roots in the sewer line and worried about branches dropping on her fence, her car, even her neighbors’ kids.
“Everyone wants to say the tree is pretty, but I have had (sewer) backup issues because of the roots, and it is a hazardous tree. It belongs in a forest, not a city,” said O’Neal, who paid a tree service to cut it down last month.
She had petitioned the city to enroll the tree in its Heritage Tree listing for extraordinary specimens in 2007, but said she was disappointed the designation came with no financial assistance to care for the tree, not even a plaque.
“I am melancholy about it, but I knew for the greater good it had to be cut,” O’Neal said. “It dropped big branches and if anyone gets hurt, I will be the Big Bad Wolf. I don’t want to have that happen.”
An alarmed neighbor called in a complaint to the city as the chain saws revved, but by the time the Department of Development and Planning responded within an hour, most of the cutting was already done.
The city is investigating whether the cutting was against its regulations protecting exceptional and heritage trees.
Neighbor Juli Cummings, who called in the complaint, lives down the street under a canopy of big copper beeches. But the elm was the biggest tree in the neighborhood, and something Cummings said she looked forward to seeing every day.
“It was like a family member,” she said, looking at the stump.
Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or email@example.com