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May 20, 2009 5:37 PM

Civil Disagreement: Should Seattle manage the tree canopy?

Posted by Lynne Varner

Civil disagreements with Lynne Varner and Bruce Ramsey, members of the Seattle Times editorial board is a weekly feature of the Ed Cetera blog. Bruce and Lynne often disagree on major issues. Here they discuss a Seattle audit proposing stricter management of trees, including those on private land.

Lynne Varner, left, and Bruce Ramsey

Lynne Varner: Hi Bruce: Did you hear about the city audit calling for tighter management of Seattle's trees? The goal is to increase our urban tree-canopy coverage to 30 percent over three decades.

That's a proposal this tree-hugger can get behind. Seattle is no desert but we don't have as many trees as a city our size should. Our tree canopy takes up about 23 percent of the city. In Boston, Minneapolis and Philadelphia, the percentage is 30 percent or higher.

To increase the number of trees on pubilc and private lands, the audit suggests the city do more community outreach and create increased protections for trees. I'm not worried that this encroaches upon the rights of private property owners. Ham-fisted policies and tactics would be the wrong approach. The city should lean toward educating residents on the importance of keeping and maintaining trees.

Critics will likely accuse city officials of being busybodies with too much time on their hands. No, trees are not up there with public safety and housing, but they represent a crucial role for government. Trees contribute to the city's health by providing clean air and nicer-looking neighborhoods. Do you agree?

Bruce Ramsey: I like trees. I grew up around here, climbing in trees--and I can tell you which species are the best for climbing, and why. Now that I have a tiny piece of real estate, I have planted trees on it: an apple tree, a plum tree, a cedar tree, a hawthorn tree, a lilac tree. I am not anti-tree. I just don't see that this is a public concern that requires the management of private citizens.

A city government is supposed to protect us from burglars, car thieves, rioters, muggers, etc; put out house fires and rush to medical emergencies; provide streets and sidewalks and traffic signs and signals; provide public parks, and a few other things. It does not have the people or the money to set a "goal" of 30 percent tree cover over the entire city, and undertake to manage trees on private land to achieve that goal.

And if it did, what claim can it make to manage me, or anyone else, through a regime of compulsion: that it will make the atmosphere more breathable? That the climate will be measurably cooled? They cannot say that. First, because the effect of each tree is immeasurably tiny. Second, because when people had total power to cut down the trees on their land--power they had for the entire 20th century--mostly they let the trees grow. They planted trees. People here like trees. They don't need to be compelled in this way.

If the city wants to have more trees, it can use tax money to buy them and plant them on public land. It can have a program to subsidize trees that owners plant in (city-owned) planting strips (what we used to call parking strips). Years ago, I got a free tree to plant in my planting strip. I had to sign a promise to take care of it. And I have. And it's still there. I like that a lot better than a regime of rules, permits, appeals and more and more public jobholders.

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