Some of you may have heard about the controversial cherry trees down by the Pike Place Market that stirred a larger conversation about the fate of trees in the city. Wallyhood was recently contacted by Sandy Shettler, a local resident with a strong interest in urban trees and preserving those that remain. She and Kersti Muul, an urban conservation specialist and arborist, sent us the following sad article on the demise of two venerable old oak trees that had shaded the western side of the Wallingford Post Office:
The two huge oaks that grace the entrance of Wallingford’s U.S. Post Office recently had most of their branches illegally cut off by the developer of the adjacent property. The City’s Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) responded to complaints with the statement “property damage is a civil matter.” The US Postal Service owns the trees, which are on public land, but did not respond to outreach. A private arborist looked at the trees and said it’s not clear they will survive.
The trees are Northern Red Oaks, a species valued for resilience to pollution, drought and even construction impacts. However, losing nearly all of their canopy guarantees that these two will never reach the 300-500 year lifespan red oaks achieve in optimal conditions, and puts even their near-term survival in jeopardy. They were planted around the time the current building was constructed in the early 1950s.
One of the oaks measures well above SDCI’s threshold for protection, (“exceptional”) which is having a 30″ diameter trunk at standard height. Pruning exceptional trees requires adherence to national pruning standards per Seattle’s tree code. In this case, SDCI used a 2017 arborist report, from when the trees were smaller, as sufficient documentation for the 2023 canopy removal.
SDCI’s lax protection of the Post Office Oaks, as well as the thousands of private property trees under its purview, led to this completely avoidable loss. Even more concerning is the City Council’s proposed new Tree and Housing ordinance, which cements SDCI’s oversight of Seattle’s urban forest, and streamlines removal of existing trees. Under the proposal, developers will pay a modest fee to remove existing large trees, with replacements going elsewhere on public land, similar to “tree banks.” Seattle City Council will vote on the bill on May 23rd.
The Post Office Oaks are emblematic of the challenges facing Seattle’s urban forest. They checked all the boxes for retention: seemingly protected on public land, a species resilient to urban conditions, and healthy and relatively young from 300-year lifespan perspective. Their destruction results in the loss of valuable urban green space and adds to a growing urban heat island in downtown Wallingford. Also lost is the sense of place and community connection which large trees bring to public spaces.
We don’t need to wait until Seattle’s urban forest is reduced to sapling farms to ask for a course correction. Development practices which preserve large trees on building sites are becoming common as cities coping with severe climate impacts, like Phoenix, learn how to incorporate trees as green infrastructure. Arborist consultation is relatively inexpensive and can help builders learn how to retain trees through the entire development process. We just need to ask.