Frank Lloyd Wright, the great American architect, once described trees as man’s best friend. Dog lovers might object to his characterization, but urban foresters would heartily endorse it.
Trees bring shade and multi-season beauty to our region’s grayscape of endless pavement. They filter air, water and noise, increase curb appeal and encourage pedestrian-friendly, outdoor-oriented neighborhoods.
It’s why Tacoma adopted a goal to nearly double its tree canopy by the year 2030. And it’s why suburban master-plan communities, such as Northwest Landing in DuPont, feature rows of sturdy trees.
Lately, however, the street trees of DuPont have climbed the city’s list of public enemies. A pair of recent News Tribune reports show how some 6,000 trees planted by the Weyerhaeuser Company have generated a financial crisis for the South Pierce city of 9,300 residents.
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When Northwest Landing was developed two decades ago, it helped pioneer the “new urbanism” movement. The result was small lots, narrow streets and ubiquitous sidewalks. Squeezed between were strips of soil not nearly big enough to let irrepressible street trees, such as the poorly chosen sweetgum, stretch out their roots.
“Big guy, small suit syndrome” is how DuPont’s public works chief summed it up for TNT reporter Craig Sailor in October.
Stuffing the guy back into the suit will cost from $2 million to $18 million, according to a weekend report by the TNT’s Brynn Grimley. On the high end, the city could replace all problem trees and repair miles of broken sidewalks. On the low end, it could merely lift damaged sections, shave tree roots and install ground barriers.
Either way, the costs will require a budgetary chainsaw for a small city with an $8 million annual general fund.
This is where Weyerhaeuser has an opportunity to make a hero’s return. In the 1990s, the timber company revived DuPont, a village that had been founded on the dynamite industry, by building a master-plan community in the shadow of the old company town. Weyerhaeuser’s real-estate division invested in cleaning up DuPont’s toxic legacy, much like what Point Ruston developers have done recently on the old Asarco smelter site.
Weyerhaeuser, having made good money on the deal, should now respond to DuPont’s plea for help. The irony that a company of tree-planting experts planted the wrong trees at Northwest Landing is not lost on city officials, whose entreaties to Weyerhaeuser so far have gone unanswered.
We hope the company shoulders some of the burden for long-ago misjudgments, though that seems less likely with every move the corporate headquarters makes away from the South Sound and with every divestiture or spinoff of its holdings.
Meanwhile, city officials can’t wait for a handout. Allowing neighborhoods to decline into unsightly zones full of trip-and-fall hazards would be irresponsible. They’re assessing budget options and taking other proactive steps. They’re even growing hundreds of ash, maple and hawthorn seedlings as cheap, low-impact replacement trees.
Homeowners also must swallow hard and realize they’re ultimately liable for sidewalks facing their land. This is standard practice in most cities, including Tacoma and Seattle. Enjoying the benefits of trees on or near private property means assuming the risk inherent in them, whether it’s a branch crashing through your roof or a root buckling the sidewalk. The key is for DuPont to enforce the rules consistently.
There’s a cautionary lesson here for cities such as urban Tacoma, as it expands its tree canopy, and suburban Gig Harbor, as it plants street trees to partly compensate for hundreds of native firs clearcut by developers.
Do-it-yourself home landscapers also should take note. In pursuit of colorful New England-esque foliage, more and more neighbors are planting nonnative species and diverse hybrids.
Consult with certified arborists for the right species and soil types. Check local tree ordinances. Choose wisely and nurture carefully, as everyone should do with a best friend.