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As Seattle Works Toward New Rules For Tree Cutting, Neighborhood Activists Push For More Protections

Bellamy Pailthorp
A street tree in Seattle's Fremont neighborhood is protected from development on an adjacent lot.

Seattle is working on changes to its tree protection ordinance. Trees provide shade and clean the air. They’re acknowledged by the City of Seattle for the ecosystem services they provide, which are increasingly called for as the climate warms. 

An interim law is failing to preserve or increase the canopy. A city council committee is discussing the first draft of a new ordinance Wednesday.

Meanwhile, neighborhood groups and other advocates are urging the city to make sure the new rules protect trees from unnecessary cutting.

Magnolia resident Jim Davis is recently retired, so he takes his dog out for walks several times a day. He says it’s given him new perspective and he’s now seeing what’s happening in his neighborhood during the day. He says trees are often being removed illegally.

Case in point: one day on a walk last December near Discovery Park, he heard chainsaws reverberating from a greenbelt, so he went closer to investigate.

“And just watched three guys with chainsaws, cutting down trees – in a ravine area that I knew was an ECA steep slope,” Davis says.  

ECA denotes an environmentally critical area, and the slope is part of the Wolf Creek ravine, which is public land. Eight large trees were cut down because the neighbors said they weren’t safe.

But Davis disagrees and has been hounding the city for answers. He says the city’s arborists agree with him. After an inspection of the site, they said the trees weren’t hazardous.  

“Yet an arborist comes a few months later and terms all the trees hazardous, by stump analysis. And I would question that,” Davis says.  “I mean, you have two sets of arborists who are coming to different conclusions. And that’s the problem.”   

He says the homeowners found an arborist willing to come to the conclusion they had, so that they could remove trees that scared them while avoiding fines or enforcement. Davis says it makes him sad.

“Because I don’t think people’s motives are necessarily bad. I just think there’s misunderstanding – or they’re worried about something,” says Davis of the homeowners.

He thinks a permit system for removals would clear that up and help educate the public about how to live more comfortably with trees - even older ones that might look more dangerous than they in fact are.

Davis and others want stronger laws to protect Seattle’s tree canopy – on public and private property.  They have formed the Coalition for a Stronger  Tree Ordinance.

Among Davis's main concerns is that the current complaint-based system doesn’t prevent questionable removals before they happen. Also, the tree cutting companies aren’t responsible for getting permits. That burden is on homeowners, who often lack awareness about the laws.

“Not just the homeowner should get a citation. The contractor - that should know better, that cut down the exceptional tree without a permit, without permission - they should get cited too,” he says

The City of Seattle has acknowledged that the current law is confusing and failing to help it reach its goal of getting to 30% tree canopy coverage in less than 20 years.  

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment beat for KNKX, where she has worked since 1999. From 2000-2012, she covered the business and labor beat. Bellamy has a deep interest in Indigenous affairs and the Salish Sea. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University.
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