Don't Miss Out

Subscribe to OCA's News & Alerts.

Seattle Mayor wants to plant 649,000 Trees

About one new tree for every man, woman and child in Seattle.

That's what it will take to reach Mayor Greg Nickels' goal for regreening the city over the next three decades -- the planting of 649,000 trees, plus keeping the tree cover we already have.   

Since the early 1970s, Seattle has lost more than half of its tree canopy as more businesses and people have moved into the city and smaller homes have given way to apartments and megahouses. Invasive ivy and blackberry bushes have smothered and killed native trees.

Nickels is looking to reverse that trend, to keep Seattle from becoming "the city formerly known as emerald." Today he is releasing the draft Urban Forest Management Plan for public comment. The strategy is expected to be finalized by the end of the year.

"It's going to be a huge undertaking," said Steve Nicholas, director of the city's Office of Sustainability and Environment. "You're going to see significant new investment."

The cost of all the new trees is estimated at more than $114 million, plus increased annual costs for maintenance.

"It's good to have the city paying attention to an important issue like this," said Jeff Bash, executive director of the Seattle Urban Nature Project, a non-profit group that has spent years tracking the amount and variety of trees found on public land in the city, raising the alarm about invasive species overrunning the woods.

Trees increasingly are being viewed as an asset to urban spaces. They clean pollution from the air and turn a key global warming gas into oxygen. They catch rainfall and slow the flow of contaminated stormwater from roadways into salmon streams.

The presence of trees has been shown to boost sales in shopping areas. Views of trees have been linked to speedier hospital recoveries. Their shade cools buildings and cuts energy costs in the summer, and can provide wind barriers in the winter.

"The city is increasingly realizing the urban forest is really part of the infrastructure of the city," Nicholas said. "It isn't just about looking pretty."

The mayor's goal is to expand the tree canopy from the current 18 percent to 30 percent over the next 30 years. Canopy is a measure of the land covered in trees, not a count of individual trees.

Some of the increase will include more trees along city streets and in parks, but the majority of growth will need to come from residential lots and commercial properties. Existing trees will also need to be preserved.

It's unclear to some if the goal is realistic.

"I don't want to be the bearer of bad news," said Larry Crites, a 20-year real estate agent with Lake and Co. But the fact is "there's not always a lot of room in people's yards for trees."

The privacy and beauty provided by trees can increase a home's value and make neighborhoods feel like a community, those in the real estate business say. But they also block views, drop leaves and shade out gardens and lawns.

City officials say they are going to spend some time figuring out the best mix of incentives and regulations to boost the tree coverage on private land. They are forming a task force this fall whose members will include representatives from the building, development and real estate industries, environmentalists and community leaders. They'll be given about six months to come up with recommendations to reach the plan's goals.

A program to educate the public about the importance of trees and how to care for them will be a big part of the effort, officials said.

The mayor's budget, which will be released later this month, is expected to include more than $4.4 million over two years for tree planting, pruning and inventory. There also is money earmarked for helping the city's planning department update building codes to protect trees.

And the city's fall ballot measure to pay for road, bridge and sidewalk improvements includes $1.5 million over two years to add a second crew of arborists to care for the publicly maintained trees on the city streets.

A partnership between the city and the non-profit Cascade Land Conservancy was launched in 2004 to restore forested urban parks that are overrun with weeds that can kill native fir and maple trees. Vines of ivy and clematis weigh down and snap branches. Their roots bore into the trees, weakening the protective layer of bark.

More than 100 acres have been restored.

Nicholas acknowledged Tuesday that the city has neglected trees, that there has not been enough money dedicated to maintaining a healthy urban forest and that efforts to help city trees have been fragmented among various departments.

Under the new plan, Tracy Morgenstern with the Office of Sustainability and Environment will take the lead on urban forest issues. She will help coordinate the effort to reach the goals of the plan and will hold the city departments accountable for the roles they play.

"We've never had a plan like this," Morgenstern said.

Some tree advocates are skeptical. They say that previous efforts have failed and that there needs to be a solid source of money, such as a tree fee in utility bills. More enforcement is needed to make sure developers protect trees when construction takes place.

"If you don't have laws and you don't have funding you can plan forever," said Cass Turnbull, the founder of PlantAmnesty, a Seattle group that advocates for urban tree preservation. "When push comes to shove, the green things get chopped when it comes to budgets."


GETTING INVOLVED

- Read the city's proposed 30-year plan for increasing tree coverage at www.seattle.gov/environment. Comments are being accepted until Oct. 20, and public meetings are set for Sept. 23 at 11:30 a.m. at the Meadowbrook Community Center and Sept. 26 at 7 p.m. at the Jefferson Community Center. The plan is expected to be finalized by the end of the year.

- In October the city is giving away 2,000 trees to residents who apply for a Plant-a-Tree-for-Free coupon at community centers citywide. See www.seattle.gov/environment/trees/tree_request.htm for more information.

P-I reporter Lisa Stiffler can be reached at 206-448-8042 or lisastiffler@seattlepi.com.