On Friday, November 9, the City Council adopted a series of changes to the proposed 2013-2014 budgets submitted by the Mayor.  The Council unanimously approved an amendment I sponsored that adds $500,000 each year to City funding for the Green Seattle Partnership, which mobilizes volunteers to maintain the health of our urban forests.

Seattle’s urban forest is an important asset to the City.  Healthy trees in our parks and greenbelts keep steep slopes from becoming landslides and reduce flooding by absorbing and detaining stormwater.  Seattle’s existing urban forest provides millions of dollars annually in benefits to the City, in addition to being a great natural environment for Seattle residents to enjoy and value.  Forests also, of course, combat global warming by absorbing carbon.  Those are all great reasons why Seattle has set of goal of expanding tree cover in the City.

But forests in an urban environment don’t thrive without maintenance.  Our forests are adversely affected by invasive plants like ivy, which choke trees and ultimately can kill them.  And, while we are happy to have all of our trees, many of those planted in past years are neither native trees nor well adapted newcomers, and those exotic species often have short life spans and need replacing.

It takes a lot of work to maintain the 2500 acres of City owned forest, and the City has never had enough funds to properly steward these trees.

Enter the Green Seattle Partnership, an innovative approach that combines public and private funding and volunteer labor to take up the task that public agencies cannot afford to do by themselves.  Forterra, formerly the Cascade Land Conservancy, developed the Partnership idea a decade ago, and signed an agreement with the City in 2004 to begin a twenty-year effort to restore Seattle’s 2500 acres of forest.  There have been many accomplishments over the years, and the City investment of $1 to $1.5 million annually has been matched several times over by private investment and volunteer energy.

Most recently, this effort was funded out of the 2008 Parks Levy, with a modest amount of assistance from the drainage fund of Seattle Public Utilities.  The Parks Levy expires in 2014, however, and it has never reached the $2.5 million annually that was envisaged in the Partnership agreement.  In 2012, the City provided $1.3 million, but that was scheduled to drop to $800,000 in 2013.

I asked Mayor McGinn to include additional funds in the 2013-2014 budgets to at least maintain the current level of effort, and I very much appreciate his agreement to do so.  However, if we are to reach our goal of a healthy public forest, more funding will be needed.  I proposed adding another $500,000, either from the drainage fund or other resources.  Fortunately, the hot commercial real estate market is generating more tax revenues from the Real Estate Excise Tax (REET) than we had anticipated.  Those funds can only be spent on capital construction and maintenance, not for expenditures like city staff, police, or human services – but maintaining the urban forest qualifies as an eligible use.  So, the Council has voted to add these funds in 2013 and 2014.

We will have to revisit this issue in future years, but I am hopeful that either a renewed Parks levy or an ongoing allocation through the drainage fund will be approved in 2014.