In 2011, an analysis using 2009 data indicated Tacoma’s urban tree canopy stood at 19 percent — covering 9.38 square miles of the city.
That wasn’t good enough. For one, the number was below the national average for cities the size of Tacoma. Trees are important, after all, reducing greenhouse gases, cooling the air, producing oxygen, filtering storm water and increasing property values.
A city’s tree canopy “is used as a proxy for environmental health,” explained Mike Carey, Tacoma’s urban forest program manager.
More needed to be done to expand the City of Destiny’s urban canopy, especially since the city adopted a goal in 2010 — 30 percent canopy coverage by 2030.
Goals are good. But asked this week how Tacoma will meet its vegetation aspirations, Carey begins by laughing somewhat skeptically and then details the long list of challenges.
I do not believe that 30 percent is obtainable.
Mike Carey, Tacoma’s urban forest program manager
“I do not believe that 30 percent is obtainable,” Carey told me.
“No net loss would be a more appropriate, attainable goal,” he continued. “And that would take a lot.”
OK, then. Keep in mind, this is the city of Tacoma’s go-to guy when it comes to trees. He knows what he’s talking about.
So how far off are we?
From the 2009 baseline — which is the most recent estimate for Tacoma’s urban tree canopy — Carey estimates that it would take 5.44 square miles of additional tree canopy to meet the city’s goal by 2030.
That’s an area roughly five times the size of Point Defiance Park.
Faced with these realities, it’s easy to understand why Carey, who describes himself as “trying to be optimistic but realistic at the same time,” is reluctant to declare Tacoma well on its way to meeting its goal.
The goal was “meant to be a stretch,” he says. “Sometimes, it’s important to set policy to call attention to things that matter.”
Prioritizing the expansion of Tacoma’s tree canopy, he says, is a decision for others; in his role as urban forest program manager, he simply wants people to have all the information necessary to make a good decision.
Carey describes Tacoma’s urban forestry efforts as “absolutely” underfunded. According to the American Public Works Association, the average per-capita spending on urban forestry programs for a city Tacoma’s size is $5.83, while Tacoma’s is somewhere just more than $2, even taking spending by the city’s Public Works Department and Metro Parks Tacoma into account.
Carey also says we’re undermanned. Over the last five years, Tacoma has had 1.2 full-time dedicated urban forestry employees, Carey says.
Most of all, Carey describes the city as a whole as under-prepared — citing a lack of tree preservation regulations on the books, which would give the city the power to do more.
Largely, individuals or businesses own most of Tacoma’s trees. When trees are planted in city right of ways, adjacent property owners are responsible for them — and city codes give those owners broad discretion to remove trees in city right of ways as they see fit. All that’s required is a free permit that’s available online and includes no need to justify a tree’s removal.
The city’s development requirements go only so far as to mandate a certain number of trees in some instances. In practice, this means a developer can come in, clear cut the land, and then replace old, mature trees with fledgling new ones, resulting in a net loss to the canopy that will take years to recoup.
In all, Carey says it adds up to a situation that provides little protection for Tacoma’s tree canopy and may be instead hastening its disappearance.
For tree advocates like Lowell Wyse, a member of the Sustainable Tacoma Commission and one of the founding members of the new Tacoma Needs Trees organization — which will hold its inaugural meeting Jan. 5 at Wingman Brewers from 6-8 p.m. — the situation is best described as a “crisis.”
Specifically, Wyse hopes to use the group to advocate for tougher and more effective tree preservation regulations. In that spirit, the debut event for Tacoma Needs Trees is described as a 90th birthday party for Tacoma’s first municipal tree codes, which date back to 1927 and are showing their age.
When we talk about the future of Tacoma, we all want it to be a beautiful, healthy place to live. Nobody disagrees about this. But right now we are going backwards. We are still clear-cutting and paving ourselves over.
Lowell Wyse, founding member of Tacoma Needs Trees
“When we talk about the future of Tacoma, we all want it to be a beautiful, healthy place to live. Nobody disagrees about this,” Wyse says. “But right now we are going backwards. We are still clearcutting and paving ourselves over.”
I asked Carey if he agrees with Wyse’s assessment of the situation in Tacoma a crisis. “I would have to agree,” he told me.
And, yes, he feels like we’re losing ground.
“I can speak only anecdotally,” Carey said. “I get phone calls by the public all the time, and what I can tell you is I am made knowledgeable of more trees being cut down than trees being planted.”
He cited a recent instance when a new landowner, unaware of the city’s efforts to protect a tree near his property, felled a mature tree with a “crown as wide as 90 feet in diameter.”
“That is over 6,000 square feet of canopy lost in an afternoon,” Carey said.
“Even if we planted 10 times as many news trees as the trees that get cut down, there’s no way we could chase that canopy loss.”
At this rate, Carey is absolutely correct. Tacoma will not achieve 30 percent canopy coverage by 2030.
The question then becomes: Do we care?