Photo depicting a group of individuals gathered at the base of a western red cedar nicknamed "May." Construction materials can be seen in the foreground of the photo.

Seward Park Neighbors Come Together to Save an ‘Exceptional’ Tree

by Agueda Pacheco Flores

You can see the tall western red cedar tree before turning onto South Mayflower Street in Seattle’s Seward Park neighborhood. Known as “May,” the tree is one of the tallest on the street. But one cannot appreciate May in full until you stand beside its thick trunk that splits into three, its branches soaring high above.

To the right of May is a house that’s under construction. Beside the tree is construction material: planks of lumber with stacks of heavy rebar on top. 

With a diameter of 44.5 inches, May is considered an “exceptional tree,” according to standards set by the Seattle Department of Construction & Inspections (SDCI). An SDCI list of tree species that could be considered exceptional includes the Western red cedar, among many others, like western hemlock, madrona, and red alder. An exceptional tree is any tree that has “significant value due to their size and species.” These are considered protected, so they cannot be cut down or, in the event of construction, require a permit to be cut down. 

“Her name is May, after South Mayflower Street,” said Mordo De Jaen, a neighbor of the tree. “And she’s been crying out, ‘Mayday, Mayday!’”

De Jaen, who is 91, says he believes the tree is older than he is. He’s lived in the neighborhood since 1959 and has watched May grow over the years. De Jaen is admittedly fond of the tree, and he’s not alone. He is one of many neighbors who came together to save May earlier this year when a permit to remove the tree was submitted to the City. 

When the space around May’s surrounding footbed was covered in construction debris in December, a neighbor reached out to The Last 6,000 campaign, which keeps track of old-growth trees in Seattle with a diameter of more than 30 inches. 

The campaign gets its name from the City’s “2016 Seattle Tree Canopy Assessment” report, which found that Seattle was home to 6,338 old-growth trees. The South End’s tree canopy has one of the sparsest canopies in the city, which has adverse health effects for the community. 

Urban trees help store carbon, clean the air from pollution, provide oxygen, and provide shade, which in turn helps reduce heat island effect (urban areas that are hotter than others due to development). A study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service calculated that trees help save more than 850 human lives a year and prevent 670,000 incidences of acute respiratory symptoms.

Meanwhile, Seattle’s 2016 report found that the more People of Color there are in a neighborhood, the fewer trees there are. Consequently, residents of historically majority-BIPOC neighborhoods, such as South Park, have been found to have lower life expectancy than their more affluent and white neighbors toward the north end of the city.

Photo depicting a black poster board with information about the western red cedar. The board rests against the trunk of May the tree. In the background pallets of construction material sit next to a home under construction.
A poster board with information about the western red cedar includes an explanation for how much a single 44-inch red cedar will reduce atmospheric carbon. (Photo: Agueda Pacheco Flores)

Seward Park’s robust 120 acres of trees provides the South End with a tree canopy full of old-growth trees native to the Pacific Northwest. Still, outside of the neighborhood, the South End residential area’s canopy is sparse, and potentially getting sparser in the face of growing gentrification and development.

Sandy Shettler, a volunteer for The Last 6,000 campaign, lives in Green Lake, but when she heard about the giant western red cedar, she jumped into action, knowing how difficult it can be to protect a tree in Seattle. “South of the ship canals, the tree canopy is so sparse — except for Seward Park — that this has echoes of a lot of other social movements,” said Shettler.

While the City of Seattle and SDCI have standards for what is considered an “exceptional tree,” and legally a developer is supposed to apply to remove such trees, it’s up to the developer to self-report. So exceptional trees can be removed illegally without the City ever knowing about them, Shettler says. 

If a developer applies to remove a tree, the City sends one of its two arborists to review the tree for disease or whether it’s a possible risk or liability before approving its removal or not.

Caryn Swan Jamero, another concerned neighbor of May in Seward Park, called the City to inquire about May in January. When she received a voicemail from Jason Shirley, an SDCI inspector, who said the tree was going to be removed once the permit was approved, the neighbors united and sent SDCI complaints about the debris and protests about May’s removal. 

“As I went around and talked to the neighbors, there was not a single neighbor that said, ‘I don’t care if the tree is cut down,’” Jamero said. 

Since then, the neighborhood has been on high alert, watching over the safety and survival of the tree. 

SDCI has not responded to the Emerald’s request for comment. 

However, the protests seem to have worked. Scott Alderson, co-owner of Revive Realty, the developer building a new single-family home where the previous one burned down, assured the Emerald that new paperwork had been resubmitted with the City and the tree would no longer be removed.

Still, Shettler says May’s story is not uncommon, and she hopes the City finds a better way to regulate exceptional and protected trees. She’s currently advocating for the passage of Council Bill 120207, which would require any tree service provider to be registered with the City and would therefore, hopefully, make compliance with the cutting of exceptional trees more streamlined, and reduce the amount of illegal cuttings that occur.

“When [people] lose a tree, there’s actually an emotional impact,” Shettler said. “Everyone around that tree shows signs of grieving. … It’s traumatic for people to lose a tree.”

Agueda Pacheco Flores is a journalist focusing on Latinx culture and Mexican American identity. Originally from Querétaro, Mexico, Pacheco Flores is inspired by her own bicultural upbringing as an undocumented immigrant and proud Washingtonian.

📸 Featured Image: Sandy Shettler and local neighbors look at the western red cedar from below and avoid standing on the property that is under development. (Photo: Agueda Pacheco Flores)

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