By a vote of 8 to 1, the Seattle City Council yesterday passed an emergency interim tree protection ordinance. Council Bill 116404 is a step in the right direction to try to halt the continued loss of trees, especially mature ones in the City of Seattle.

Since 1973 the city tree canopy has decreased from 40% down to 18% according to the Mayor’s Office when he announced his 2006 – 2007 Environmental Agenda.

Council Bill 116404 would limit tree removal and topping to no more than 3 trees that are 6 inches in diameter per year. It expands the definition of exceptional trees to include “group of trees”. Hazardous trees and dangerous trees would be exempt from the law.

While a step in the right direction the interim tree ordinance mainly gives protection to trees that are not being threatened by construction or building permits. Unfortunately the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) still will have the authority to approve construction projects without significant regard for the loss of trees in the process. This is why there is an urgent need to pass new strong legislation to protect trees in Seattle.

The DPD’s recent approval to cut down 72 trees in a rare plant habitat at Ingraham High School near Haller Lake in North Seattle because the understory was not in a pristine condition and the approval of cutting most of a grove of mature Douglas fir trees at Waldo Woods in North Seattle finds the DPD’s bias is to cut down trees without regard to its impact on Seattle’s urban canopy and continued loss of natural habitat.

The understory in most urban forests needs restoration. Many of Seattle’s Parks have little native understory because they have been overrun with ivy and blackberries. Understory can be restored in a few years time while 75 year old trees like at Ingraham literally take 75 years to be restored.

Waldo Woods is being appealed in King County Superior Court and the Ingraham decision is being appealed by Save the Trees- Seattle before a City Hearing Examiner on April 1, 2009.

You can watch the watch the full council meeting here , listen to the public comment and and to the Council members as they discuss their support for the measure before they take their affirmative vote. The tree ordinance vote is their first action item on the Agenda.

All the Council members except McIver spoke in favor of the ordinance and voted for it. They did express the need to do a tree inventory for Seattle so we can track how fast trees are being lost and whether we are reversing the trend.

Save the Tree-Seattle noted the need to require permits before trees can be cut down as the only way we can track tree loss accurately. They also suggested that the Environmental review process should be turned over to the Office of Sustainability and the Environment for independent review, rather than DPD doing it.

The ordinance that was passed will only be in place until a long term tree protection law can be put in place, hopefully this year. Unfortunately such a new law has been talked about for years and little publicly has been seen coming from the Mayor’s Office. Hopefully this will change.

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