by Vee Hua 華婷婷 and Jadenne Radoc Cabahug
For some residents of incorporated and unincorporated South King County, tree protection has become a point of focus and concern, as large trees are increasingly being removed without community consultation to make room for single-family homes.
In 2022, activism from different residents led to the saving of an “exceptional tree” in Seward Park as well as a shift in plans which may have harmed a tree canopy in Dead Horse Canyon. Most recently, the 2023 county budget included a $100,000 proviso from King County Councilmember Joe McDermott, which lays out potential steps to develop a tree ordinance for Skyway and White Center. The action followed combined efforts by neighborhood residents and tree conservation activists, following the potentially illegal removal of 13 large trees in White Center to build a single-family home.
In July 2022, Sandy Shettler, a board member of TreePAC and Friends of Seattle’s Urban Forest, and Kersti Muul, an urban conservation specialist, sent a message to King County Executive Dow Constantine and the King County Office of the Ombuds, requesting the investigation of “the removal of more than 5,000 board feet (BF) of lumber” at a White Center land parcel. They alleged that in June 2022 “a forest of 13 mature trees were removed from this site without an approved permit” and that “a permit was issued which retroactively approved the removal of all the trees, in violation of King County’s code, which stipulates the removal of a tree of that size requires its own permit.”
According to Muul, the letter was sent after she called King County multiple times during the tree clearing in June, where she hoped to inquire whether the clearing was legal and permanent. She said she received no response to her emails or questions.
Margaret Grace, a resident in the neighborhood where the trees were cut, says the area had been considered a mini-forest with wildlife thriving within the large trees that provided shade and privacy. After the tree clearing, she expressed that her house became hotter due to a lack of shade; she also experienced more noise pollution without the noise-dampening effects of the trees between her house and Sea-Tac International Airport.
“These forests are really valuable because they are the forests that grew after white settlement,” Shettler explained. “This land used to all look like that, and then it was completely cleared, except for very few places … it’s almost all second-growth now in the Puget Sound area.”
Following further research, Shettler and Muul discovered that while the City of Seattle has notable tree protections, they do not apply to unincorporated areas of King County. Seattle’s Tree Protection Code (SMC 25.11), for instance, is intended to limit the number, size, and type of trees that are removed from private property to protect urban forestry. The code says no more than three trees 6 inches or greater in diameter and 4.5 feet above the ground may be removed in lowrise, midrise, commercial, and neighborhood residential zones unless a new structure permit is provided.
“You could literally cut down every tree in Skyway and White Center, and you would not be breaking a single law,” Shettler said. She is also quick to point out, however, that while Seattle does have a tree protection ordinance, it often is not properly enforced.
McDermott’s proviso outlines five steps for the Department of Local Services (DLS) to undertake, so that King County may eventually develop tree protection legislation for unincorporated King County. It also requests that the Department of Local Services (DLS) gather information on best practices in other King County cities and counties so that DLS can make recommendations for a future tree retention and protection ordinance.
The proviso will provide “a timeline and public engagement strategy for completing the update and transmitting a proposed ordinance to council,” but does not appropriate any of the funds for the DLS to conduct such works.
Among the recommendations are descriptions of current tree regulations and enforcement mechanisms in unincorporated urban areas; research into similar initiatives in neighboring Western Washington counties and King County cities; and industry best practices for tree retention regulation and enforcement in urban areas. Once those are finalized, DLS is to provide an evaluation and recommendation as to whether and how such policies in unincorporated King County should be updated, and, if appropriate, “a timeline and public engagement strategy for completing the update and transmitting a proposed ordinance to council.”
“It’s the council’s way of saying, ‘Hey, we want you to do this … we’re going to freeze up part of your budget until you do it.’ And that’s our way of making sure that they actually do it rather than ignore us,” McDermott said, noting that DLS will not be able to use the funds until they comply with the request.
“We did not expect to get the gift that Joe McDermott gave us … it also speaks to the fact that the county politics are … a simpler structure, and it’s just on a smaller scale,” shared Settler. “They don’t have big agencies to administer the way they do in Seattle, so, as a result, they can be more nimble.”
Settler and Muul do not see themselves as anti-development, but want King County to consider how to do things differently. Shettler said development and tree protection can coexist. In the White Center tree clearing, neighbors and Muul said the large trees could have been saved, since all but one were on the perimeter of the single-family home.
The same week the trees were cleared from the White Center land parcel, King County released its 3 Million Trees pledge to plant 3 million trees by the end of 2025 as part of King County’s 2020 Strategic Climate Action Plan and 30-Year Forest Plan. Forest conservation is part of the pledge and includes preserving approximately two million trees.
Noemie Maxwell Vassilakis, a member of the Defenders of North SeaTac Park, said the efforts of the neighborhood and tree activists are a shining example of what people can do in terms of protecting the environment. Vassilakis compiled a spreadsheet with statistics from King County’s 30-year Forest Plan, which shows that White Center had some of the sparsest tree coverage in the county and the highest poverty rate, whereas wealthier neighborhoods had more and larger tree canopies.
Vassilakis explained that a common misconception is that planting new trees will compensate for the large old trees that are cut down, but a new tree takes at least a decade to reach the size where it can take pollution out of the air and balance the costs of its planting. Furthermore, the U.S. Forest Service says the tree mortality rate after two years of planting is 34% with an average annual mortality rate of 19%, with the highest mortality rates in lower-income neighborhoods.
As outlined in the Office of Sustainability and Development’s August 2022 assessment of Seattle’s tree canopies, Seattle has experienced a net loss of 1.7% (255 acres) of tree canopy during the 5-year period between 2016 and 2021, despite the city’s goal of hitting 30% total urban tree canopy by 2037. The report also cites that this loss of tree canopy comes at a time when the city’s population has grown by 8.5%, with approximately 58,000 additional new residents and 47,000 housing units.
“We need to educate elected officials. We need to educate developers. We need a culture change,” Vassilakis said. “We need to look very carefully at these ordinances to make sure that they are providing the right incentives.”
Vee Hua 華婷婷 (they/them) is a writer, filmmaker, and organizer with semi-nomadic tendencies. Much of their work unifies their metaphysical interests with their belief that art can positively transform the self and society. They are the interim managing editor of the South Seattle Emerald, editor-in-chief of REDEFINE, and a member of the Seattle Arts Commission. They are also a film educator at the interdisciplinary community hub, Northwest Film Forum, where they previously served as executive director and played a key role in making the space more welcoming and accessible for diverse audiences. Their latest short film, Reckless Spirits (2022), is a metaphysical, multilingual POC buddy comedy, for which they are working on a feature-length version. Follow them at @hellomynameisvee or over at veehua.com
Jadenne Radoc Cabahug is a senior at the University of Washington majoring in Communications: Journalism and Public Interest and double minoring in international studies and French. She began her journalism career at 15 in Seattle through NPR KUOW 94.9 FM’s RadioActive Youth Media Program producing radio feature stories and podcasts. Since then, she has moved to print and online journalism, writing for local Seattle outlets like Crosscut, the International Examiner, the Daily and breaking international news Factal.
📸 Featured Image: A clearing of trees on a land parcel in White Center prompted community actions which led to a $100,000 proviso, which lays out steps towards creating a tree ordinance for unincorporated King County. (Photo courtesy of Sandy Shettler.)
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