Tacoma’s goal of creating 30 percent tree canopy by 2030 can seem straightforward — until you realize the city controls little of its tree space.
About 12 percent is park land, with a little more city property.
The rest is split among single-family homes (31 percent), multi-family homes (4 percent), commercial (7 percent), institutions (6 percent), industrial (11 percent) and right-of-way (28 percent) — and on all of that land the trees are the property owner’s responsibility.
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In other words, Tacoma needs its citizens to plant and take care of trees to reach the canopy goal.
“The biggest obstacle is that 31 percent of Tacoma is single-family homes,” said city arborist Mike Carey.
He noted that while new developments have landscaping requirements, single-family homes and older developments are exempt. And while owners technically must get permits to remove or severely prune street trees, they often don’t.
“It’s hard for the city to manage on that scale,” Carey said. “There’s no way to know what’s really going on. The amount of complaints compared to the amount of trees removed is small. And we have no authority to tell people not to cut trees.”
Nan Hogan is one person who does complain about cutting trees.
A long-time resident of Tacoma and University Place, she’s acted as an informal tree watchdog for years, confronting business managers and reporting to the city when she noticed developers lopping trees.
She’s pained that the city has no authority over owners who want to remove their trees for no good reason.
“It’s just so sad for someone who loves trees as much as I do,” Hogan said. “It breaks my heart.”
Others, though, are happy to see trees gone, especially when they spoil the view or when storms turn trees into threats — like the tree in Gig Harbor that killed a 36-year-old father in August.
“The way trees interfere with people’s lives is sometimes more clear to see than all the ways they benefit us,” said Matt Distler, an ecologist with urban forest management experience on Mercer Island. “So it’s sometimes easier to make the decision to get rid of a tree than to keep it.”
However, trees can counter some threats: They’re vital to protect a city from increasingly extreme storm flooding, they protect each other from the isolation that weakens trees, and they can calm traffic around businesses worried about parking lot safety.
The solution to getting all Tacomans to protect their trees is two-fold, Carey said.
More regulation for adding or protecting trees for all single-family homes is vital and is included in the city’s proposed Environmental Action Plan.
Also needed are education, outreach, incentives such as the city’s street tree coupon program and partnerships like the McKinley DePave.
“It’s about the carrot rather than the stick,” Carey said.