LOOK AT A CITY—say, this city—and you see a human drama: 600,000 people scrambling for money, power, sex, love, and whatever else they’re here to get. But step back and take a longer view, from a satellite or even a bird’s-eye perspective, and you’ll see another power struggle unfolding—the contest between trees and everything else that covers the ground. It’s a struggle waged in nearly every corner of the urban environment. It colors issues ranging from transportation and development to health and class relations. And sometimes it turns civic politics upside down.

Everyone pays at least lip service to the good things trees do for us. They shade and cool us. They clean the air and capture storm water, reducing flooding and pollution runoff. (The city values these two benefits at $5 million and $20 million a year, respectively.) They provide habitat for songbirds and other wildlife. They capture carbon, reducing global warming. And, by the way, they make us feel good and boost property values; been to Las Vegas lately?

Before humans began clearing the land, trees held sway here; 200-foot firs and cedars thronged to the water’s edge. They may rule again after humans depart. But in the interim, they’ve been losing badly. By 1970, Seattle’s tree canopy was calculated to have shrunk from nearly all to just 40 percent of its territory. That was, and still is, the canopy share that the pro-tree group American Forests recommended for rain-blessed cities like ours. But today that coverage has fallen below 23 percent—despite recent growth, in number and in total coverage, in street trees, which the city both plants and encourages residents to plant.

Trees have fared much worse on private property, especially property undergoing development. In recent years, average tree coverage fell from 30 to 18 percent on single-family lots that got redeveloped and from 18 to 5 percent on redeveloped multifamily lots. When builders pack in McMansions and town houses, they tend not to leave much room for trees. And the city had little say in the matter; its old tree-protection code restricted cutting only on undeveloped lots.

In 2007 the City, under Mayor Greg ­Nickels, released its first-ever urban forest master plan. It set a goal of raising canopy coverage to 30 percent in 30 years. To get there, the city council resolved to draft a new, more comprehensive tree code. That sent a shiver through two very different communities. Developers feared new rules would limit what they could build. Urban forest activists—a small but passionate contingent—feared property owners would rush to cut down valuable trees that might later be protected. Horror stories trickled in of owners doing just that. And so, in April 2009, the City implemented interim measures to prevent a rush for the chain saws while a permanent tree code was hashed out.

The interim rules bar cutting more than three grown trees in any lot in a single year, unless the lot is being redeveloped. And they ban cutting “exceptional trees”—trees with trunks above a set diameter for each species (two and a half feet for a cedar, fir, or elm)—unless they’re hazardous or they prevent an owner from realizing a property’s “full development potential.”

Last year the city council, on a motion from its president, Richard Conlin, delegated the task of drafting a permanent ordinance to the Department of Planning and Development (DPD), the agency that grants building and land use permits. And it established an Urban Forestry Commission (whose roster includes an arborist, a hydrologist, an economic development specialist, and other experts) to watchdog the process.

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It was probably inevitable that a commission dedicated to protecting urban trees and DPD, whose job is facilitating development, would collide.

Both sides agree on one thing: The interim regulations aren’t working. People are still cutting down trees that shouldn’t be cut down. Tree advocates say that’s because DPD isn’t enforcing the rules. DPD officials say it’s because those rules are unenforceable.

The cutting ban operates on what’s euphemistically called a “complaint-driven” system. City inspectors respond when, say, a neighbor hears a chain saw slicing into the century-old oak straddling her property line. But inspectors only take calls during business hours, which effectively gives the chainsaw wielders a pass on weekends. Even on weekdays, by the time inspectors get the complaint, the damage is usually done.

In July, DPD delivered a draft proposal to resolve this problem—the first indication of the McGinn administration’s stance on trees. Rather than make the cutting bans more enforceable, DPD proposes to eliminate them; instead it would encourage planting and preservation through “incentives” and “education.” In order to get building permits for single-family lots, owners would have to amass a certain number of “tree credits” for preserving existing trees or planting new ones. But they could cut down a giant Douglas fir and atone by planting four saplings—with no one checking after the first couple years to see if the saplings survived.

Multifamily and commercial developers would have even more flexibility under DPD’s scheme. To get permits, they’re required to amass “Green Factor” points from a menu of options, including mulching, growing food, permeable paving, green roofs and walls, and trees. DPD officials predict that developers will tend to opt for trees because they’re much cheaper than, say, green roofs.

But roofs and walls don’t take up valuable space, as trees do. And tree advocates mistrust any plan that trades established, healthy trees for uncertain future benefits. “The trees existing now are survivors,” says biology teacher Rich Ellison, a cofounder of Save Seattle’s Trees. “They’ve survived the urban environment. To cut them down and replace them with a few saplings and call it a Green Factor is a lie.”

In August, the Urban Forestry Commission rendered a more nuanced critique of DPD’s proposal: It supported the incentive approach “in principle,” but noted that the Green Factor has so far proven ineffective at preserving trees in low-rise multifamily zones. And it urged the city to step forward and protect trees in the 98-plus percent of the city that is not undergoing development at a given time—by (shudder) requiring permits to cut them down.

DPD predicts that a permit system would cost $680,000 a year. Having to get permits would surely raise citizens’ hackles; a man’s yard is his garden, right? The difficulty, DPD planner Dave LaClergue told a packed public meeting at City Hall in late September, lies in reconciling two contradictory principles. “We love trees and want to expand the canopy. And we want to be able to get rid of our own trees that are problems without having to ask permission.”

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The problem also lies in the confrontation between two hallowed civic goals, expanding the urban forest and boosting residential density. Mayor McGinn’s dedication to density (like Greg Nickels’s) is well known. The tree huggers doubt his commitment to the forest. “The mayor’s into densification,” sneers Ellison. “He’s really just another developer.”

Tree politics makes strange adversaries; the most ardent advocates of a leafy green Seattle mistrust Seattle’s bicycle-riding, highway-blocking mayor. But McGinn will get a chance to show his green colors next year, when DPD delivers a revised version of its proposal. (It’s taking public comments until October 31.) The plan then goes to the city council—which plans to take it up next summer.

“Our intention is to take the time to get it right,” says Rob Gala, a former Conlin aide working on the issue. Big technical challenges remain, he notes—in particular, how to measure trees and the “infrastructure services” they provide. Canopy is a crude two-dimensional approximation; a tall evergreen has more volume and provides much more shade and other benefits year-round than a wide-spreading ornamental maple covering just as much ground.

Various community groups have offered to help measure trees from the ground, says Gala. “The Urban Forestry Commission will do a lot of the heavy lifting to decide that.” He insists that density and forestry are compatible: “It’s possible to build around exceptional trees. But it costs more.” And higher costs complicate what’s already a “difficult political landscape.” Or treescape.

“We’ve got some time to work these things out, but they’re pretty huge. Monster.” Just like the trees that once grew in Seattle.

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