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Where We Live: A Tree's Place

Those big green things are more important than you think.

Not long ago I wrote

Let me expand on that. It’s easy to take them for granted, but trees are an inherent and necessary part of our landscape. As grasses are to the prairies, trees are to here. When the first Euro-Americans moved out here they were utterly gobsmacked at the forests they found. A tall tree back East was 100-feet tall, a big Yellow Pine is 2-feet across. The ‘big four’ native trees- Douglas FirWestern Hemlock, Western Redcedar, and Sitka Spruce will each top 200-feet high in ideal conditions. The Western Redcedar is the biggest tree in America other than the Coast Redwood and the Giant Sequoia, getting up to 19.7 feet across (The Kalaloch Cedar), and the Douglas Fir is reputed to top 400-feet, which would make it the tallest living thing on Earth!

The Redcedar is considered sacred by local natives, and every part of
it is or was used, the wood for structures, boxes, canoes, paddles, and
everything else you might expect, the bark for cloth, rope, and even emergency food, the roots for fabric and medicine, the branches for… you get the idea. It is thought of as a life-giver, and one is required to pray to the spirit of the tree to ask permission to use its substance and thank the tree for it.

Douglas Fir is the classic lumber tree hereabouts, and can crack 300’ in height. Unverified story has it that a grove in Seattle in what is now Ravenna Park was 400’ tall, but when the private park was given to the city somehow all those trees had been logged before the city officials arrived! Structurally, it is considered equivalent to Western Hemlock, Washington’s State Tree. The Uniform Building Code runs their two listings together as “hem-fir”.

Bigleaf Maple is among the most common deciduous trees here.  It grows well in our soils, but isn’t used for structural purposes because it cracks and fractures easily. Years ago I was in my aunt’s back yard on a sunny summer day facing a neighbor’s Bigleaf and a massive branch- perhaps 20 percent of the whole tree- just fell off! Luckily, no one was hurt and it missed a car parked in that alley.    

Black Cottonwood, common around stream edges, is tall and beautiful, but the pioneers knew it as “rottenwood” because it is brittle and subject to falling over. It fills the late spring air with “cotton” (seeds).

Red Alder is usually the first species to fill in any place disturbed by fire, landslide, or construction. “Live fast and die young” seems to be its motto, as they rarely live over 150 years and most go much younger. It was seen as a “trash tree”- one which had no commercial value itself and could interfere with high-intensity logging- for decades, but is valued now for cabinetry work and for smoking salmon.  

Pacific Madrone is a favorite of mine. With its big, glossy, evergreen leaves and peeling red bark it looks like some exotic from the tropics, yet it’s as native as the Redcedar. On a sunny slope it might grow fairly straight, but it will take whatever course it must to get into the light, so it can often end up
twisted and highly picturesque

Trees are essential habitat for most of our native life, and essential environment for the rest. Salmon don’t live in trees, obviously, but the trees provide the shade necessary to keep the streams cool enough for salmon and when the salmon die, especially when bears and eagles take the fish into the forest to eat, they return massive amounts of nutrients to the trees. UW researchers have studied tree rings to get a clearer view of the size of salmon stocks in the pre-contact age so we can better rebuild their runs.

‘Doug-fir’ is habitat for Red Tree Voles, Spotted Owls, and Porcupines, and food for many birds, and its base will be surrounded by Vine Maple, Salal, Oregon Grape, various ferns, and Huckleberries. Redcedar dominates large swaths of our area and feeds many animals, especially in winter. Every one of our trees is its own ecosystem. Removing any of them is to affect all of them. They are all just parts of the whole.

Trees take up vast amounts of carbon as they grow, hence the idea of , and vast quantities of water, hence a good part of why they’re so good at controlling runoff. The other aspect of their part in runoff control is the simple physical presence of their roots keeping soil particles in place like a net. The US Forest Service says “The planting of trees means improved water quality, resulting in less runoff and erosion. This allows more recharging of the ground water supply. Wooded areas help prevent the transport of sediment and chemicals into streams.”

A mature ‘climax forest’ here is a patchwork of Doug Fir, Hemlock, Redcedar, Spruce, and others, as all their different environmental requirements, growth patterns, and random chance variably favor one or the other over the centuries. It adds up to the greatest amount of biomass in the world and we must preserve, repair and expand it wherever it exists. Amazonia and the Great Barrier Reef may have greater diversity, but in sheer mass our forest ecosystem is the greatest on Earth.

The City of Shoreline has a goal to increase the city’s tree canopy. While higher CO2 rates will foster faster growth in some trees we can’t count
on that alone to offset our impacts. At the very least we should plant more trees! Some folks won’t consider all those other aspects of trees, despite that they will have large positive effects on homes and neighborhoods as well. King County has a good list of native plants and their landscaping characteristics. Knowing all that I have to say it really hacks me off when someone can’t see a tree- any native tree- as more than just an interchangeable “design element”!

Janet Way December 04, 2011 at 03:46 PM
Wonderful Larry! This is a really nice tribute to our NW Tree Canopy. And gives some of the attributes which we value about them. One important value that you did not focus on was the "water retention" value of our urban forest canopy. One fact that many do not realize is that trees, especially conifers retain an enormous amount of storm water. Up to 50% of the precipitation that falls on a mature tree, never reaches the ground! Our trees provide incredible services to our communities, for very little investment. Just want to mention a few more natives that are equally important and add to our plant diversity. Too many to name, but wanted to mention a few more that make our tree canopy so interesting. • Despite the fact that you mentioned our State Tree, Western Hemlock, you didn't elaborate. It is one of the most beautiful, and graceful. • Pines - White Pine, Shore Pine and so many others • Sitka Spruce • Cascara - Greatly valued by birds for food • Western Hazelnut • Pacific Dogwood • Hookers Willow
Jan Stewart December 05, 2011 at 12:03 AM
Thank you for this article! I don't think we can be reminded too often about the value and importance of our trees. One question: I went to the City of Shoreline link in your article and found no mention of a goal to increase the tree canopy. Where is that goal stated? Thanks again.
Larry Lewis December 05, 2011 at 03:44 AM
I looked even harder, and I haven't found it! I was told that a couple times, but what I found was this: http://www.mrsc.org/mc/shoreline/shoreline20/shoreline2050.html#20.50.290 In 20.50.290 D, E, F, G, H, I, J & L, which says "Replacement of trees removed during site development in order to achieve a goal of no net loss of tree cover throughout the City over time. (Ord. 398 § 1, 2006; Ord. 238 Ch. V § 5(A), 2000)." "No net loss." That's it. I guess they think our tree canopy is good enough as is. Not I. Thanks for the catch.
Boni Biery December 06, 2011 at 02:21 AM
Isn't it interesting that you can't find information about the City's trees. I you would like to watch/listen to the Shoreline City Council evade setting a meaningful goal, please watch the video of the May 11th, 2011 Council Meeting at http://shoreline.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=4&clip_id=328 You can jump right to item 9a. While the current canopy in Shoreline is at about 30%, the nationwide average is 35%. And that does not account for the size or species of the trees which have significant effect on the "service functions" provided by the canopy. It seems reasonable that since we Live in the northwest, we should be able to meet the set the current nationwide average as a minimum goal. Check it out here: http://www.fs.fed.us/openspace/fote/sustaining.html
Janet Way December 06, 2011 at 05:38 PM
Just a couple additional points on Tree Canopy - Thanks to Jan and Boni for pointing out the lack of any real goal for tree canopy in the City of Shoreline's codes and plans. The Sustainability Strategy had loftier goals, but the current "tree ordinance", which is actually scattered throughout the code and not very inspiring (to say the least), is "no net loss"! Pretty sad. Considering that most people moved to Shoreline for about 3 basic reasons, Schools, Trees and Affordable Housing (relative to other localities), "No Net Loss" is a very unsatisfactory goal. Larry, I just want to point out that your theory that Black Cottonwoods are "brittle and subject to falling down" is not very accurate. They do loose limbs suddenly sometimes, but they grow very fast, straight and tall, and provide many benefits. As far as "Big Leaf Maples" falling down, that assertion is also suspect. Trees do fall down, that's just a fact of life and nature, and occasionally people and properties are injured. But this is no reason to cut any ole tree that has the temerity to grow up and become some "view-oriented" property owners obsession. We have ample reasons to increase our canopy and fear mongering by some, is not a good reason to avoid that valid goal. Shoreline needs to get on this and stop the senseless and aimless cutting which is now the default situation. Thanks!

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