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    More Trees for Seattle

    Lush street trees in 1937 (Seattle Municipal Archives)

    Seattle has accepted a big challenge:  to turn around the loss of tree cover from developing a City on this formerly forested land, and to restore and regrow as much of the urban forest as we can.  Trees not only because they make the City more beautiful and our neighborhoods more livable, but also help with stormwater management, reduce air pollution, provide food and habitat, and reduce global warming by absorbing carbon.  Our goal is to protect as many current trees as possible, ensure that existing trees are maintained and encouraged to grow stronger, and plant and establish new trees.

    We have made progress.  We created the Seattle Green Factor, which requires new development to include an appropriate array of trees and bushes.  We implemented the Green Seattle Partnership, which mobilizes volunteers to cut back ivy and other invasives and plant trees in our parks and public lands.  We adopted an Interim Tree Ordinance that makes protecting groves of trees a priority.  Groves provide healthy ecosystems for other forms of life and a better environment for sustaining the trees themselves.  Actions like these have resulted in measurable increases in Seattle’s tree canopy.

    Over the next few months, there will be four decisions that will help determine how successful we will be in the next stages of this work.

    1. A proposed Street Tree Ordinance is expected to reach the Council sometime in early fall.  This ordinance would formally create requirements for the maintenance of the thousands of trees planted in the right-of-way.  Many of these trees suffer from poor maintenance, from trimming and topping to prevent conflicts with power lines, or because the wrong tree was planted in a place where there is limited space to grow without cracking sidewalks or interfering with underground utilities.  The proposed ordinance would codify requirements to plant appropriate trees, create requirements for best practices for care and maintenance, and prevent improper trimming practices.  This ordinance will go to Councilmember Rasmussen’s Transportation Committee.
    2. The Council will decide on continuing the Green Seattle Partnership when approving the 2013 budget in November.  This program was funded under the 2008 Parks Levy, and has mobilized thousands of volunteers.  Levy support is reduced after 2012.  The Council will have to find at least $1 million to keep the program going, either in the Parks budget or drainage rates.  Unfortunately, the City’s general fund faces an estimated $30-35 million shortfall next year, so it will be tough to come up with new money for this program, and there are already great pressures on the drainage utility.  I am committed to try to find a solution, but it will not be an easy task.
    3. Revisions to the City’s Urban Forestry Management Plan (UFMP) will come to the Council late this year.  The UFMP was created in 2007 to identify goals and strategies to maintain, preserve, restore, and enhance the urban forest in order to reach the City’s 30% canopy cover goal.  These revisions update key indicators of progress, provide current data on the state of the urban forest, specify actions for tree management, and inventory existing urban forest programs.  The draft plan is available for public comment through October 1, 2012 at www.seattle.gov/trees/management.htm.
    4. Finally, in late 2012, the Council expects to receive a proposed ordinance that creates a permanent regulation governing trees on private land.  It is a difficult task to craft tools that can grow our urban forest while also giving property owners choices that balance other important priorities, such as gardens, recreational space, sunlight, and safety.  The Urban Forestry Commission is currently reviewing the draft of the new ordinance.

    To restore our urban forest, we must take a holistic approach, considering a full range of strategies to make the most of both public and private property.  We should embrace ecosystem thinking.  Our goal should be to foster the growth of a diverse, multi-age, multi-species forest in the City with appropriate understory.  The Seattle forest should be focused on native or native-adapted trees, and self-sustaining to the extent possible, with minimal requirements for pruning and management, especially on public property.  Recognizing that individual trees and small groups of trees can be great assets to property owners and communities, our focus should be on providing a set of incentives and parameters that will encourage groves and stands of trees, whether in linear form along streets, in backyards where property owners are willing participants, on larger parcels of land including parks, or in cooperating neighborhoods where neighbors can come together to steward these groupings.

    On private property, an incentive based approach to encourage property owners to plant and retain more trees is the best strategy, including creative ways to engage private property owners as partners in recognizing the inherent value of trees on their property.  We should explore neighborhood based conservation approaches, such as LIDs, tree easements, community covenants regarding tree maintenance and preservation, and tree cooperatives, where maintenance and preservation can be planned and shared in the community.  In areas being developed, I suggest that the Seattle Green Factor is a great model of how we can best support the maximum amount of trees and an ecosystem approach.  While I appreciate the appeal of a ‘tree removal permit’ and similar regulatory approaches, an approach based on a regulatory model will be insufficient to meet our city’s goals.  I do want to maintain exceptional trees that are currently protected, and would not exclude regulation from the toolkit, but it should not be the centerpiece of our strategy.

    The people of Seattle are committed to the health and stewardship of Seattle’s urban forest.  I look forward to hearing comments and creative thinking as our efforts to implement an updated Urban Forest Management Plan continue.

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