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Guest Commentary / Snohomish County tree canopy

Speaking up for our silent citizens

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By Joan Smith, Mickie Gundersen and Laura Hartman

The silent citizens, the green protectors of Snohomish County, are rapidly disappearing. For years the cedars and Douglas fir forests have paid taxes to the county by providing clean air and water, stabilizing slopes and calming frenzied lives with their extraordinary beauty. At last count, our unincorporated Southwest Urban Growth Area (SWUGA), which surrounds the largest cities of Everett and Lynnwood, has less than 37 percent of its original canopy of evergreens. More than 45 percent is considered a baseline for maintaining clean water and air.
Many of these green citizens have roots that predate our current cities by decades. In some cases, they have lived undisturbed for centuries. Unlike deciduous trees, the evergreens work year round to clear the water and air of pollutants, cushion noise and moderate temperature. They are a unique and priceless vanguard against the ravages of climate change. In the summer, they keep our environment cooler and provide a moderating effect for winter storms.
What becomes of the wind where nothing stands to act as a barrier? Without the bracing of these trees, the annual Pineapple Express could howl far more seriously and the downpour certainly release more flooding. Surprisingly, strong trees mitigate the forces of the winds.
The current proposal put forth by Snohomish County Planning and Development Services allows for clear cutting to develop a property and canopy replacement of 30 percent or less over a 20-year growth period. This proposal puts many existing properties as well as Burlington Northern tracks at high risk. Much of the land left to be developed lies in the Southwest UGA. This area extends along the bluffs above the Puget Sound from Everett to Shoreline. Some lies within close proximity of ravines and streams where the runoff races to its final saltwater destination. Other bits frame North and Swamp creeks farther inland.
Developers permitted many of these properties before the current critical area regulations were put into place. During the economic downturn, the county extended these permits for nominal fees. In short, what is allowable in terms of encroachment to hazard zones under those permits is questionable.
To allow clear-cutting, even with canopy replacement efforts, could create environmental havoc within any of our urban growth areas. Twenty years is a long time to wait for root structures and foundation plantings to get established. Also, many of the non-natives selected for urban living cannot carry the loads of stormwater generated by the storms to our region. Nature has spent generations in selecting those species!
Unfortunately, our citizenry has already experienced one painful disaster at Oso. Does the planning department need another before developing codes that are more respectful of the need to retain trees within this region? Tree retention, not clear-cutting and replacement, is far more respectful of the contribution made to our welfare by these native trees and the native understory such as salal, vine maple and huckleberry.
Rather than sacrifice existing tree infrastructure, the smart development of attractive, saleable and dense urban communities requires inclusion, not exclusion of mature canopy. Giving tree retention a priority shows that our county leaders honor the unique, historical and natural character of the Northwest. It underscores their importance in creating health and beauty within our lives. Expanding greenbelts and insisting on keeping groves of the healthy trees, says that we are in the business of developing homes, not just houses. Furthermore, we develop communities in which individuals and families can thrive, not simply have an address.
Our silent citizens, the native trees, cannot speak for themselves! However, the voices of those who understand their contribution can and must speak. The Snohomish County Council needs to hear from those who see that forward thinking development is filtered through the lenses of environmental protection and conservation. This requires letters to officials, checking websites and “being there” at meetings that are seldom conveniently scheduled for a working population.
Planning proposals for codes that would allow clear-cuts and replacement for future canopy rather than tree retention of existing canopy are unacceptable.
Mickie Gundersen, a retired educator, lives in South Snohomish County. As a member of the Hilltop Locust Community Group and Sno-King Watershed Council, has worked for environmental causes, especially for the preservation of trees.
Joan Smith of Edmonds, a retired educator, has served as a past Secretary and Natural Resource Chair for the League of Women Voters of Snohomish County. Some of her other writings for the environment can be found at her website
Laura Hartman lives and operates a small business in South Snohomish County, working for many years as a paralegal community advocate.

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