By Joshua Morris, Urban Conservation Manager
Protecting trees has been a priority at Seattle Audubon since 1916. Over 100 years later, we’re still a leading community advocate for Seattle’s urban forest. In mid-December, 2019, Councilmember Alex Pedersen invited me to present to the Council’s Planning, Land Use, & Zoning Committee regarding the City’s need for stronger tree protections. I was honored to present alongside staff from the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections, Seattle Office of Sustainability and Environment, Portland’s Urban Forestry Team, and the University of Washington School of Environmental and Forest Sciences.
My message was simple: the most important thing we can do for our urban forest is to protect the trees we already have. Unfortunately, the City’s current tree regulations do little to incentivize tree protection during development and code violations are difficult to enforce. Seattle Audubon and hundreds of other tree advocates are calling for stronger, simpler, and smarter protections to ensure that big developers maximize tree retention and replace the trees they remove. We’re also calling for the City to monitor tree loss and replacement, to require public notice for tree removal, and to fund code enforcement.
During my presentation, I made sure to note that Seattle’s urban forest is exceptionally diverse with over a thousand different tree species, subspecies, varieties, and cultivars. The trees in our urban forest provide resources to over 100 of Seattle’s terrestrial bird species, including forest-dependent species like the Brown Creeper, Pileated Woodpecker, and Varied Thrush. Birds like these often visit neighborhoods and parks with big old trees and dense canopy cover. However, data from Seattle Audubon’s Neighborhood Bird Project suggest that Seattlelites in areas with less than 20% canopy cover may be unlikely to encounter these birds. Lower canopy neighborhoods also tend to be lower income, which poses environmental justice and equity concerns. Exposure to nature, greenspace, and wildlife viewing opportunities is associated with a number of positive mental and physical health benefits and equitable access to these benefits is still not a reality in Seattle.
A healthy, growing, protected, and equitably distributed urban forest is essential for the health, resilience, and well-being of Seattle communities, both human and avian. We’re proud of the advocacy work we accomplished in 2019 and will continue to carry the banner of urban forest protection into a new decade.