Seattle has long feasted on its trees, cutting down its forest to fuel its economy. Seeing the money through the trees began with the first boat of settlers, The Exact. Less than a month after the Denny Party arrived at Alki Point in November 1851, they were cutting trees to ship to San Francisco. The men worked thirteen full days, from sunrise to sunset, plus another six half days, and by January had cut 256 pilings, each about fifty feet long.
Thirteen months later, Seattle’s first start up company, Henry Yesler’s mill, opened. Recognizing how important a mill was to the future success of Seattle, previous arrivals Carson Boren and Doc Maynard had ceded to Yesler part of the land they had claimed. Yesler’s mill was located on the waterfront, on what would initially be called Mill Street, and now is Yesler Way. The mill opened in March working with logs harvested from the forest surrounding the nascent little town.
Our desire for logs also led to one of the most infamous monikers in Seattle: Skid Road, a reference to the route supposedly used to transfer, or skid, logs from the hill above Elliott Bay down to Yesler’s mill. Over time, Skid Road, or Skid Row, as some say, came to reference a dividing line in the city, and the term was adopted in many other locations.
Puget Sound eventually became one of the world’s great sources of lumber. For many years, Ballard was known as Shingletown for its production of cedar shingles and so many mills dotted Puget Sound that early travelers often commented that they could smell where they were headed long before they arrived. Lumber also helped lead to the first canal between Lake Washington and Lake Union, built in the 1880s to bring logs from the bigger lake to David Denny’s mill at the south end of Lake Union.
Cutting down trees represents what was long a dominant worldview in and around Seattle. Whether people were cutting trees, mining coal, harvesting oysters, or fishing salmon, they viewed natural resources as a product to be extracted and exploited. Few gave any thought to whether these resources would disappear. For example, state fish commissioner A. C. Little wrote in a 1901 report: “Until a few years ago it was not thought necessary to exercise any care in taking the oysters from the beds. The supply seemed almost unlimited, and it was supposed it would always remain so.”
Over the past few decades, as I argued in my book Homewaters, the exploitation worldview has changed. People who live in the Seattle region now look upon the flora and fauna and geology as treasures that need to be sustained and stewarded. We realize their importance to the health of the ecosystem, as well as to the health of human communities. For many people, and I certainly include myself, the city’s trees and wildflowers and birds and mammals and all forms of life make Seattle a better place to live. Just take trees as an example. In addition to cleaning the air, leading to more water soaking into the ground (which reduces the strain on the sewer system), and generally improving air quality via increased photosynthesis and removal of unpleasant, human-made, air-borne particles, trees help maintain mental health and decrease stress. Plus they inspire us with their beauty.
All of which brings me to the Seattle City Council, which is considering an upgrade to its Tree Protection Ordinance. The revisions are due in part to a 2021 City of Seattle report showing that the city’s tree cover was down 28.1% from 2016, or roughly the equivalent of the acreage of Green Lake (259 acres). The drivers of the loss include new development, climate change, and aging trees. In addition, the report showed that the loss was not evenly distributed; “neighborhoods impacted by racial and economic injustice not only started with less canopy they also lost more than the citywide average.”
Unfortunately the proposed Tree Protection Ordinance does not go far enough to live up to its name. Too many concessions are made to developers. The fees for removing trees are too low to compensate for the key ecosystem services they provide and too little money is set aside for long term maintenance and protection of newly planted trees. In addition, there isn’t enough focus on integrating trees into design; they need to be a more important part of the equation in planning not only by developers but also by individual homeowners and the city.
We have reached a point in the city’s history where two key issues—climate change and housing—intersect. We cannot work on one without considering the other. Working on the sustainability of the natural world can take place, and I would argue, is essential, to sustainability of our human communities. We can save our trees and help people. It will not be easy. It will cost more money than some want to spend. It will require each of us to make changes, including some we don’t want to. But I truly believe we have the capacity and capability to create a Seattle that can both protect its trees and helps its residents. A good first step would be a better Tree Protection Ordinance than the one proposed at present.
There are many good sources of information about the Seattle Tree Protection Ordinance. Here are a couple I like, in case you want to contact a city council member. Their voted is expected on May 23.
TheLast6000 and Dontclearcutseattle - Both provide thoughtful discussions of our trees, their importance, and what’s at stake with the Ordinance.
And, information on the Denny Regrade from my book Too High and Too Steep was featured in a story yesterday on KOMO news. Here’s a link to the story. By the way, I am in it!
I'm friends with several trees in Seattle.
I'm for reforestation and a robust science based department of biodiversity in our city that helps people learn how to care for wild plants and animals. Round up is still an over the counter poison that we think nothing of using. As with so many of our plant and animal cousins we think nothing of them at all. What if we tried non harm for a few decades to make amends for cutting down everything in sight?
I'm also against class warfare and see some of the pro tree people saying they love trees as a way of keeping THOSE people out of OUR neighborhood.
The climate changing fast is also changing what trees survive here. Maples are dying out, northern California trees will have to be planted here as they normally would take thousands of years to migrate north.
I'm daydreaming about turning Aurora Ave between Green Lake and Seattle Center into a car free park with social housing, transit bike paths to help handle growth from climate migration and abolish homelessness.
In researching trees with potential for the strip for this section of Aurora, my friend and plant genius Arthur Lee Jacobson said we need to plant trees that grow food and are drought resistant as water even here will become more precious.
So my Seattle Highline style Park idea is now percolating into a food forest.
My friend Mike Lee graduated from UW landscape design with a reforestation design for the street that connects Pioneer Square to Seward Park. ( Mike drew all my tree posters and helped me start Good Nature publishing in 95.)
So perhaps we could reforest Aurora to Seattle Center and Myrtle Edwards Park, then plant trees, vines and urban farms down 1st or 2nd to Pioneer Square linking downtown to Seward Park?
Maybe there are other ideas that could help us grow a muscle to go outside, leave our screens at home and imagine a great city full of trees, abundant housing, food and enough?
I don't know. But it's fun to think about looking for ways to challenge the myth of scarcity, plant trees that will mature long after we're gone.
I have a mix experience with Seattle and trees. A few years ago my neighbor and I hired a tree company to cut down a Douglas fir that is on our shared border. This tree during a wind storm is scary and would easily take out several of our out-buildings and even my house if the wind is blowing more westerly. It even has a damaged top from the winds off the sound.
My tree guy submitted for a permit. We paid 350 bucks for it. DENIED!!!
What galls me is in the hood we have developers and other new house projects. They have cleared the property of all trees. The city approved that. Why is my house less important than a new one.
Anyway.. that is my rant about their tree policies. A bunch of hypocrites for sure.