Who is deforesting Seattle?
By Sandy Shettler
Photo credits: Jayn Foy
A new and ongoing investigative report by Kersti Muul, and volunteers from from Tree Action Seattle (TAS) documents the failures of the Department of Constructions and Inspections (SDCI) to protect the nearly half of Seattle's trees under its purview.
The report details 19, address-specific examples of SDCI ignoring, or facilitating tree code violations in the past two years. This has resulted in the removal and destruction of numerous trees and groves. The report sources public documents, as well as internal SDCI emails, obtained via public records requests. Muul emphasizes that the examples were chosen to represent various types of ongoing SDCI violations, and to show geographic distribution across the city. She reports that volunteers documented substantially more violations, but pared down their list to just a few examples.
Another report released last month by the Seattle City Auditor, reveals systemic nepotism, questionable ethics and conflicts of interest within SDCI. Muul/TAS draw similar conclusions; since SDCI is funded almost entirely by building permit fees, the agency has a direct conflict of interest with tree preservation. Preserving trees produces no revenue for the department.
The Muul/TAS report says "SDCI regulates the nearly half of Seattle’s urban forest which grows on residential private property. Tasked with protecting this valuable resource, SDCI has instead overseen its removal". They also conclude that SDCI’s lack of stewardship of the urban forest has "tacitly encouraged the continued deforestation of Seattle."
Seattle's new tree protection ordinance "has made absolutely no difference in SDCI's ongoing failures," Muul states. To the contrary, she notes an increase in examples of SDCI failing to enforce the code since the Tree Service Provider Registry took effect in November 2022, as well as a new Tree Ordinance in August 2023. "The new codes simply created different loopholes and further confuse the public."
Muul and TAS also call for the creation of an independent urban forestry division within a new Department of Climate and the Environment. Many cities, such as Portland, Boston, Washington DC, New York City and Cleveland, already manage their urban forests through independent agencies led by urban forest scientists. A Northwest Progressive Institute 2021poll found that over 70% of Seattle residents surveyed, support the creation of an independent urban forestry department.
"Uniting urban forestry under one roof will save trees and save resources," Muul states. The City of Seattle currently runs nine separate urban forestry divisions and several interdepartmental urban forestry teams. She notes that a senior urban forestry advisor will soon be hired into the Office of Sustainability and the Environment, but says that person will have no staff and no enforcement authority.
Muul and TAS conclude that "the Department of Climate and the Environment must have a direct reporting line to the Mayor, free of interference from corporate influence and the inherent conflicts of interest that plague Seattle’s canopy oversight today. The new Urban Forestry Division must be staffed by professional urban foresters and follow science-based guidelines for protecting Seattle’s canopy heritage for all, and for generations."
EDITORS NOTE: The Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections responded to a request for comment on this story and that statement can be found here.