Big Picture

TreePAC  ‘making change happen’

by Cass Turnbull

Are you tired of pleading, asking, arguing and proving that trees have public value? Join TreePAC and make change happen. Together we will be a lobby as powerful as the sports lobby.

SELF- EVIDENT TRUTH: The Urban Forest is essential.

Trees save money through their green infrastructure services. They reduce stormwater run off, mudslides, urban flooding, soil erosion, and reduce energy costs by moderating the local climate.

Trees are good for the environment: they increase bio-diversity, protect habitat, pollinators, and wildlife. They provide for a cleaner Puget Sound, and they mitigate the causes and effects of global climate change.

Trees improve community and health—they create walkable/bike-able streets, stewardship and recreational opportunities; reduce noise pollution; improve property values and community pride. Trees provide beauty and solace for all.

MISSION STATEMENT:  The TreePAC mission is to influence the government to protect, maintain and increase the urban forest.

We contribute to candidates, lobby policymakers, and raise awareness of Urban Forestry issues. We do so by attending meetings and hearings, sending mass pre-written emails, holding protests and media events, and by adopting tree preservation projects.  We work and advocate for better laws, funding, and enforcement. Your membership dues support these activities.

Background on tree preservation issues in Seattle

A video snippet of Brennon Staghli from DPD saying,

“Heritage Trees must be retained unless doing so would prohibit meeting the development potential of the site.” Filmed at an Urban Forest Symposium in 2011.

Richard Conlin letter calling for voluntary tree preservation on private property. No permits/regulations.

Today, about 18% of the city is covered by tree canopy as compared with 40% just 35 years ago.

Goals of an effective tree protection ordinance from Seattle’s Urban Forest Commission.

Promote a healthy urban forest across the city. Elevate and recognize the urban forest as critical infrastructure. Provide stronger protections for larger trees. Ensure public education and outreach is integrated into the release and implementation of the tree protection ordinance. Ensure a comprehensive urban forest management approach. Recognize ecosystem value and wildlife habitat. Formally adopt and implement the Urban Forest Management Plan

Other cities with tree permit system in place are Lake Forest Park, Kirkland, and Redmond.

From the City’s Complan

E23.  Strive to achieve no net loss of tree canopy coverage starting in 2008, and strive to increase tree canopy coverage by 1 percent per year up to a total of 40 percent, to reduce storm runoff, absorb air pollutants, reduce noise, stabilize soil, provide habitat, and mitigate the heat island effect of developed areas.

The Year of Density by Cass Turnbull

The year of 2014 in Seattle was the year of density, specifically density without infrastructure, including green infrastructure. The development of Urban Villages and single family in-fill was breath-taking in its speed, the immense size of the structures, and the perversity of some of the building configurations (apodments, two packs, three packs, four-packs; the faulty towers, the wedgies, and  the prison blocks. Most of the new apartment and office buildings have only landscape remnants around the edges. You know, ornamental grasses along the front of the building and parking strips planted so densely that your passenger is trapped in the car. Those count now as the landscaping requirement.

In the new BIG houses, the American backyard has been reduced to a small green square– the BBQ pad. Or sometimes it turns into the secret parking spot. The four-packs have traded their yards in for hidden, shared garage access courtyards. It must be fun to maneuver a full sized SUV in one of those.

The trees and the traditional Seattle landscapes are being sacrificed everywhere for everything: for mega-houses, for Accessory Dwelling Units, for office towers with waterfront views, for roads, for mass transit, for the economy, for…for…for…density.

We know that density done right is a good and necessary thing, but we have embraced an unfettered density which is stealing the soul of our City. There will be no neighborhood character and no livability for the City dwellers of the future. We’re even selling off the little green triangles along the roads. The craftsman bungalows are squeezed between three story skinny houses, if they’re not torn down and replaced by McMansions. There fewer and fewer vacant lots to play in, fewer rope swings, forts, and tree houses, no funky old buildings, or hole in the wall cafes,  or mom and pop grocery stores.

Recently I’ve been driving through the light industry areas of town, in Fremont, Interbay, and the Duwamish. I’ve been looking at their stacks and piles cast offs and machinery sitting behind chainlink fences, interspersed with fixed-up and painted old houses, still occupied, and dilapidated ones. I’m saying goodbye to wooden buildings with glass windows, to welding shops, to artist’s lofts, hangers, to places that fix things and to one-story anythings. I’m saying goodbye to the real ‘mixed use’ land. It never occurred to me that it would someday become to a new sort in ‘industrial use’ land–slick and featureless, and without a spot of green anywhere, to clean and cool the air, to stop the run-off, or to sooth the weary worker.

And I’ve been saying good bye to Seattle’s water views. They used to be everywhere, to be seen by everyone traveling the roads along the lakes, the canal, and Elliot bay. And at the bridge approaches, and from Dexter, and Aurora, and then there is that view of the Olympics, the water sparkling, and ferry boats seen from the viaduct.

The City’s views will ALL belong to the wealthy soon. The rest of us will be driving in a tunnel. Well, we’ll be in cars, I’m not sure we’ll be moving.

The destruction of Foster Island for the new 520 bridge is the perfect image of our time. The massive concrete road structure that is being built seems like a juggernaut eating its way through the wetland in stunning slow motion.  It is nothing short of spectacular.  Every time I cross the bridge I look at the advancing and uncaring machinery, and try to gauge its progress. I try to see if the beaver lodge, the heron and the golden swamp cypress are still there. After the requisite impact studies and obligatory handwringing, it is a fact that the green spaces, the trees and native areas, are always taken–taken because it makes more sense, or because it costs less money, or because it makes more money, than the alternative. They talk about balancing the needs of the City with green space. But it never gets balanced in favor of the trees. Is there anything sadder than the sign that says there has been a ‘determination of ecological non-significance? ’

So I wonder is it time to move, or to pushback, or just to cultivate one’s own garden’?  as Voltaire so aptly put it.


The Two-for-Every-Removal Replacement Myth reprinted, Cass Turnbull

 In response to citizen concerns over the tree cutting and clearing of Seattle City Light’s unused substations, Josh Fogt from Councilman O’Brian’s office stated that the “citywide canopy will not suffer in the long term” because Seattle City Light has a policy of planting two trees for every one cut down. I sent back the following excerpt as part of a longer response. Thought you’d like to read it.

Planting trees is both good and essential in order to keep the urban forest healthy. But I firmly believe it is insufficient, in and of itself. Policies that rely on the two-for-one tree planting mandate may ironically create a smaller and less effective urban forest in the future.

An almost universal perception is that planting two or more trees for every mature tree cut down replaces the mature tree, or perhaps even doubles it, . People, companies, and institutions who cut down trees often point to their tree-replacement policies as evidence that they are doing no harm. Worse yet, many tree trunk diameter replacement formulas are institutionalized in tree ordinances, including ours.

Planting a sapling only replaces another sapling, not a mature tree. Sixty years of growth are needed to realize the environmental cost-benefits of a mature tree, now called Ecosystem Services or ES.  This is an important distinction. The benefits of mature or large trees are greater than those of young trees, which is corroborated in the Life Science article posted recently by Becky Ostin.

Seattle is steadily losing its mature trees and not replacing themIn 1997 the average trunk diameter of 50% of the trees in Seattle’s residential neighborhoods was 5” or less (Urban Forest Management Plan) and that number has remained the same for ten years. The reason for this, despite the elapsed time for growth and the planting of many new trees, is the high mortality of urban trees, paired with the steady removal of older species. A tree with the average lifespan of 150 years in a rural area will live only 37 years in residential areas, and only 13 years in downtown areas (Skiera and Moll,1992). Furthermore, new trees are particularly vulnerable to premature mortality. A recent research study showed that a quarter of the trees planted through volunteer tree projects will die in the first six years (Lu, Svendsen, Campbell, Greenfeld, Braden, King, and Falxa-Raymond, 2010).

Aggressive tree planting programs can increase the total canopy cover of the city, at least for a while, though the quality and diversity of that forest may be still be declining. That increase will necessarily end and possibly reverse. The reason is that the total potential tree canopy cover is tied to the amount of land available to be planted, not the number of trees put in the ground. As more land becomes dedicated to roads and buildings, fewer permeable surfaces are available to support trees. The common, simplified scenario is for a developer to buy a mature-treed property, cut the trees down, halve the amount of permeable land by putting up a larger building or buildings, and then plant twice as many sapling trees on the remaining open land. But one cannot keep halving the planting space and doubling the number of trees. It is a reverse Ponzi scheme. There is a tree carrying capacity built into every piece of land. Two-for-one tree planting policies consistently fail to take this into consideration.

Some environmentalists regard ambitious tree planting programs as a form of green-washing. This is because these programs allow governments, individuals, and companies to avoid taking more meaningful steps to preserve the urban forest. Seattle, for example, has been studying, planning, and goal setting to preserve trees on private property for many years. This is shown in the city’s 2007 Urban Forest Management Plan, now morphed into the 2013 Urban Forest Stewardship Plan. Both indicate the need for Seattle to adopt a tree preservation ordinance for trees on private property. Despite many attempts, this has still not been done.

Meanwhile, land continues to be sold, subdivided, built and overbuilt, and mature trees cut down without challenge.

The seductive thing about tree planting initiatives is they are so politically uncontroversial. Every ten years a mayor announces a new tree-planting initiative, or so it seems. Most people love to get a free tree, and those that don’t, just decline the offer. Tree preservation, on the other hand, is much more complicated and unpopular with many groups and individuals. Tree preservation policies can decrease the profit margins of developers, they can appear to be in opposition to other city goals such as increasing housing density and transportation improvements, and they can restrict people’s property rights. But the need to protect mature trees and to preserve the required amount of permeable surface to support them and their replacements, is becoming increasingly urgent.


SAD TREE STORIES, originally published in the PlantAmnesty newsletter, 2008.

As founder of PlantAmnesty my mission  has been to end bad pruning, not to preserve trees from removal. Over the course of last 25 years we managed to get the incidence of tree topping in Seattle reduced about 80-90%. As successful advocates for trees, many people would ask for our help about other tree issues. Here is a story I wrote:

Every month I get e-mails from people who want me to help with their tree troubles. In the last month I got and e-mail from the guy defending his full grown birch that was near, but not under the power line; the lady who was concerned her neighbor was going to cut down two magnificent Japanese maples; the guy alerting me that the school planned to cut down several very large, healthy Doug firs to expand their building because the tree-less area was deemed less suitable; the lady whose Thuja hedge was being butchered on the neighbor’s side; a report on the trees topped at a ferry terminal; the lady in Portland whose neighbor hired somebody to clobber his entire landscape; and several group e-mails asking me to endorse or attend several worthwhile citizen’s initiates and public meetings regarding protecting the Urban Forest.  Many other ‘sad tree stories’ never get to me, as the PlantAmnesty staff endeavors to ‘field’ most of them, so I don’t blow a gasket.


Communications regarding incidents of mal-pruning get priority as that is our rightful domain. Our stated main mission is to end mal-pruning (in King County in five years). In town we might investigate, send letters, or maybe even hold a protest. We sometimes give or send the DVD (of the slideshow of pruning horrors and pruning micro-course)

Out of town, we can offer the services of our ‘nasty letter writer’, send back-up literature and suggest courses of action.

Most our work is done on the maco-level: we write articles on mal-pruning; supply how-to literature and run the referral service; and we host pruning classes. We staff the awareness raising educational booth, post no-topping street signs, stop topping bumper stickers, and sell and wear no-topping t-shirts. Soon we hope to do the same to end inappropriate shearing…the ‘shear madness’ campaign.

But the most important thing we do is get ‘bad pruning’ reported in the media. It is the best way to change the body of public knowledge: It’s cheap, it’s fast, and it’s really effective. We get stories in the newspapers. We get extra points for making it into the TV evening news. We get interviews and mentions on the radio. We’ve aired Public Service Announcements, posted billboards, held Mutilated Tree Protests, and we get coverage of the issue simply by being who we are and doing what we do.

Our goal has been to prove it can be done. Work which inspires others to speak up, and gives them hope.


Probably our most difficult cases involve line clearance pruning. It is a complex issue with no good solutions. We sympathize with people’s concerns for trees and send them the pertinent Pruning Topic– Tree Pruning for Powerlines–via e or snail mail. There is good powerline clearance pruning and bad, but even when it’s good; it’s not a nice thing to do to trees. However, it is a necessary thing. And no matter how much we would want it otherwise, there is no reasonable way to make a big tree small, or keep it small. That’s Nature’s law. We ask the concerned citizen to compare the pruning done to the illustrations in the article. I have yet to see any particularly bad line clearance here in Seattle, at least not recently. That’s not to say it’s never happened. At one point I did meet with the line clearance honcho to discuss some pruning. Several large trees under wires had been pruned into giant t’s instead of y’s, as is the correct method. Since then Seattle City Light seems to have gone back to ‘rabbit-ear’ pruning, as opposed to ‘mouse-ear’ pruning which it had become and which is un-maintainable, IMO. (since then, SCL has started using contractors and has been told to increase the time between pruning cycles. The results are overly heavy directional pruning.)

Because of the particularly plaintive and cogent letter, we investigated the birch near the powerlines, which turned out not to be as the writer portrayed. It was not full grown, it was under the powerlines and therefore it would, as a single-leadered tree, be topped. The better alternative-tree removal-would probably not be acceptable to the tree owner, and City Light cannot remove a tree without the tree owner’s permission, although that is the kinder thing to do.

The bitter truth is that the damage done to this tree is the fault of the person who planted it, not the people ‘pruning’ it.

On the macro-level PlantAmnesty posts the line clearance article on the web, covers it in the DVD on pruning and in slideshow presentations. We have sent in a petition to the City asking that the wires on major arterials be undergrounded, slowly over the years. And we have requested that the City itself stop planting large trees under wires, and approving large trees to be planted under powerlines (called ‘maximizing planting space’).


I also get a lot of mail, e-mail and calls from people being bullied by their neighbors who want them to prune or remove their trees for all the classic reasons (dirty, dangerous, messy, or ‘in my view’) Some are victims of tree-or-shrub vandalism. Unfortunately some are even being sued, if they live in a view covenant community.

For these people I can provide tree-related information: the Trees and Views Packet, the Construction Damage Packet, the Tree Law Packet, and the Hazard Tree Packet. We used to refer a lawyer who specialized in tree cases, but he has since retired.

Other than that, I help by giving tree owners my best advice. I let the person know that these sorts of calls are not unusual. Neighbors will often fixate on your tree as the source of their unhappiness. My advice to the tree owner is to stop being reasonable. All the lawyers and newspaper articles and covenants advise peaceful arbitration, which means–you lose! The ‘model tree ordinance’ of Clyde Hill just absolves the city of any arbitration responsibility and refers the problems back to the disputing parties. In reality what happens is the view seekers just keep badgering until the tree owners are worn down and the tree is removed or topped.

And if you are foolish enough to allow some pruning, or the removal of a tree or two (be sure you hire the arborist and are on site during the pruning), I promise you that, far from appeasing them, this will instead lead to more and more requests for you to do more and more to accommodate them.  Why? Your willingness to accommodate reinforces their belief that they are justified in their demands. You may as well hand Belgium over to Hitler.

Instead, I recommend that you pretend that you are the rudest person you have ever met and bark back at the neighbor who is after your tree. Make untrue and idle threats, such as, “If anything happens to my tree, something is gonna happen to you!” (But not in front witnesses!) And try to work into the conversation that you will sue for harassment, that you have a brother who is a lawyer, and that the trees are of great sentimental and historic value to you. There is an old saying, “Stand up to a bully and you’ll make him your friend.” Perhaps not, but maybe he’ll go bother the other neighbor instead of you.

There are other things you can do. For example, send him/her a letter including a report from a consulting arborist on: 1) the appraised value of the trees (giving trees a dollar value makes them property not just that green stuff that grows for free and is in the way) and/or; 2) a professional risk assessment.  Keep track of any calls, letters, and messages from the bullies for the possibility of lawsuit or small claims court. And be sure to take pictures of your tree. If something bad happens, call the police and issue a report- not that it will do any good. But it builds a background of complaints that might help the police and legal profession to start seeing trees as valuable property.

nd be aware, things aren’t always as you would like. Once, I got a call from an upset lady in a development surrounded by mature trees. Some people in her community insisted that the trees be removed, being certain that they posed a grave threat. I reassured her that trees were not dangerous simply because they were big. I recommended a consulting arborist. Later I found out that all the trees were dangerous! The developer had retained forest trees, building close in, while destroying the root systems. The caller, furious and in utter disbelief, blamed the consulting arborist (instead of the developer) for the tragic situation. Oh well, you never can know the truth unless you do an on-site investigation, as I have learned from long, hard experience. What people tell you is very often at odds with how it truly is.

On the macro-level, we do as above; supply brochures on saving trees and views, info packets, and referrals to arborists. And we are a resource for reporters. Eventually they call about these issues and I can give them my opinion, which is shared by our members. It was my great pleasure to use the term “view monger” in an article which appeared on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. I can also just go over to ‘the Sad Tree Story’ file and pull out contact info on people with personal horror stories to tell. This gives their articles more impact and corroborates their assertions. Hopefully it is some small measure of revenge for those suffering at the hands of tree haters.


 Then there are those instances when people are reporting pending or completed tree removals on other people’s property: churches, land being developed, parks, commercial sites or even in their neighbor’s yard. Those cases really get my stomach acid flowing. 1) I wish I could help, but probably can’t and 2) tree preservation is a very complex issue, and extremely site specific. I’d have to spend an unpaid lifetime investigating each and every case.

For example, what if the trees are hazardous, or short-lived, or under wires. Is the tree in question one of ten on the property, or the last one on the lot in a treeless neighborhood? Is the tree suitable for retention, or smack dab in the middle of the lot where the guy wants to build his home? Just what are the laws of the land in that location? I don’t know. And what, exactly, am I supposed to be doing about it? I’ve made a commitment to end bad pruning, but PlantAmnesty’s mission was never tree preservation. I try to get the staff to explain this to people, but it hurts none the less, and they sneak through to me. I started PlantAmnesty because the damage to plants bothers me. As my reward, I get to see and hear more of it every day!

We can offer the things listed above- referrals of knowledgeable arborists and literature. And I can proffer my own best advice. After you do your homework, call the media. You don’t have to have ‘connections’. Just look in your yellow pages under Television Stations, Radio Stations or Newspapers and call or e-mail ‘the news desk.’ Tell them you have a story idea. Someone will call you back.

Media coverage is one of the few things that can change the course of human events. As PlantAmnesty well knows, fear of public embarrassment is one of the three great human motivators, the other two being guilt and greed. (Note: It sometimes backfires. They cut the trees down at dawn, while no one is there. But, after all, what do you have to lose?) If you choose to do a media event you 1) must make yourself available for interviews 2) get your ducks in a row (having back-up literature ready and other sources and numbers for the reporter to contact) and 3) you must be willing to be the contact person.

It may work simply to call the press. You may also want to post a sign near the trees (use 8 ½ by 11” brightly colored paper, using fat letters, and laminate it which can be done at your local copy-mart), arrange a meeting at a house or local meeting place and announce it with flyers or in the neighborhood paper. Or you can circulate a petition (of the non-legislative sort) at the meeting or protest or by going door to door. Failing all else, the old chain-yourself-to-the-tree gambit is a sure fire way to get the reporters out. And–this is very important–when the story gets in the news, or people show up to the protest, or sign your petition, be sure to collect their contact information. This information is like gold. At some point you will need to be able to contact them to get them to the public hearing.

All this takes quite a bit of bravery. Just know that I too was, at least initially, terrified. But it turns out okay. After twenty years of actively crusading, pushing my point bluntly and some might even say, offensively, I am utterly amazed at how few complaints I’ve received. This work will have the opposite effect, flushing out people who feel the same and want to help. It’s exhilarating and heart warming. So, have courage Camille!

And lastly, I request that you send an e-mail or letter to a local representative. It probably won’t save your neighborhood tree, but it will create the political will do something in the future. These letters are among the hardest things for people to do. And yet, they are among best to effect change.

In the worst cases, people with tree trouble take me to task for not stepping in to save the day. They are disappointed, even angry that I won’t do more. They seem to believe that I have some special powers, maybe money, or lawyers, or real clout with the media or City, or a cadre of volunteers waiting for the summons to go save a tree. It’s not true! The PA staff and I are relentlessly overbooked with work, part-time, underpaid and dealing with a host of deadlines and events that cannot be ignored. We are like the Wizard of Oz, just a silly man behind a curtain, projecting an illusion of being all-powerful.

When people take me to task, I get defensive. I feel like saying. “Well, what have you done? I’m sorry; do we know each other? Did you work your butt off as a PA volunteer? I must have missed your check in the mail.” But I don’t say these things. Because, in reality, they are right.

I could, if I really wanted to, do a lot to save their beloved tree(s) from destruction. I could get hold of all the P/A members and call a protest, and write and call the media and the Mayor and everyone. If I turned all my energies to the project, it might work. And my callers sense that, I’m sure. But the problem is, what do I do next month when the next worthy tree is in danger and someone asks for my help? If you call out the Calvary every month, they just stop showing up. And therein lies the crux of the problem.


And I get e-mails from individuals and groups where I am listed as but one among many addressees. They generally request political action of some sort: signing petitions, attending meetings, contacting politicos and supporting legislation. I almost never reply to group e-mails, even though I’m supportive. I used to work for the City of Seattle (as a groundskeeper) and it just seems that the amount of energy it takes to get something done is insanely out-of-proportion. I am definitely not a political animal. I never look at government channels, or read up on what our reps are doing. I’d rather eat barbed wire. This is not to say that PlantAmnesty has never participated. From time to time we attend hearings, send in petitions, propose legislation, and write letters. I’ve attended more than a few City-sponsored advisory panels. I’ve never been satisfied with the results.

Another problem with responding to these group calls-to-action is that they just spawn more. This is the trouble with giving to charities, participating in non-profit groups, and engaging in politics. If you do something, soon you are asked to do more. Then more and more. Consequentially, you are constantly being reminded of the tragic things in life. And people are asking for more of your hard-earned money and spare time. You wind up feeling even more guilty and helpless, or burned out by volunteering. Eventually you become irritated that it never seems to be enough! I’m sure that’s why many people choose to do nothing at all.

I’ve tried to balance PlantAmnesty’s tales of horror with tales of hope, humor and useful how-to information. So it’s odd that in the last year P/A has joined the ranks of political action groups, and even odder that we are doing so via the web and your e-mail. You may or may not have noticed that we have launched a web-based green lobby, found on the homepage of our website. (ed note. the spin off is TreePAC) And I can now contact you individually to ask you to send a pre-written e-mail to your government rep. This is the new model for political action that makes it easy for people to participate. We do all the work, (examining the issue, deciding what to say, looking up the e-dresses); you just sign on and send it in. And many of you have. Much to my extreme delight. Hundreds of you have sent an e-mail to the Mayor or Council member asking that they adopt the modest improvements to the Street Tree Ordinance proposed by our City arborist. Proposals that have been being recommended in one form or another for over 18 years. Unbelievably, they remain un-adopted at the time of this writing! (Street Tree Ordinance since adopted) I look forward to the day I may announce our success.

It is part of the master-plan to create a green lobby (city, state, fed) that is as powerful as the sports lobby. You laugh, but why not? The problem remains the same as described above. How can one proceed without becoming ‘eco-spam’?

I have no idea what I’m doing, but that has never stopped me. Our principles for the green lobby are that, instead on a thousand people asking for a thousand things, a thousand people will ask for three things. That way we may become a ‘force’ to be taken seriously. The idea is that we will send out no more than 3-5 calls to action per year, which will, in theory, also prevent volunteer burnout and irritation, including my own. And we will need to build a consortium among like-thinking groups. To avoid bogging down in attempt to get complete agreement on all issues, my thought is to get a priority list from each once a year and act on only those which are agreeable to all. It just might work. Wish us luck, we’ll need it. Agare Selecte (act selectively)

written by Cass Turnbull