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Originally published Thursday, May 1, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Saving Waldo Woods: a test of Seattle leadership

Every great city reaches a tipping point where strong leadership is required, and where mere initiatives and agendas are turned into visible policy actions.

Special to The Times

Every great city reaches a tipping point where strong leadership is required, and where mere initiatives and agendas are turned into visible policy actions.

Seattle is at this tipping point in terms of its commitment to retain and expand its urban forests. A proposed North Seattle development provides an interesting test of whether Mayor Greg Nickels is willing to take the necessary next step.

In 1924, Waldo Hospital was built in North Seattle's Maple Leaf neighborhood. The purposeful plantings that complemented the hospital's design have blossomed into a healthy and intact urban forest of more than 100 trees — what has come to be called "Waldo Woods."

The subsequent property owner, Camp Fire Puget Sound, put this community resource at risk when it offered the property to the highest bidder with no conditions for tree preservation. Only 36 trees are slated to be saved, and even these are at risk from the proposed residential development.

Nickels produced a number of press releases over the past six years describing "agendas" and "initiatives" addressing trees and the environmental issues created by their disappearance. He even has an "Urban Forest Management Plan" on the books, though at this stage it is a plan in name only. Its broad agenda has no teeth. The plan does not, in fact, manage a single tree.

Seattle's current tree cover is just 18 percent, embarrassingly below the 30 percent recommended for Seattle by the U.S. Forest Service. The resulting heat-island effect exacerbates global warming. Urban flooding is worsened when evergreen trees — each of which the Forest Service tells us prevents up to 1,500 gallons of rainwater from hitting the ground each year — are removed or replaced by deciduous trees.

Bottom line: We're still losing trees. The mayor's Department of Planning and Development has allowed the destruction of hundreds of trees, often replaced by town homes and condos. So-called single-family "infill development" contributes to even more tree loss. When neighbors complain, they are often labeled as "NIMBY" — "not in my backyard" — and chastised that "density is green."

Increased density can be positive for the environment, but density is not automatically green. Seattle citizens increasingly realize this is true. When they bus to work past a neighborhood parcel with mature trees, only to see the trees gone when they bus home, they instinctively know the town homes that spring up a few months later are not the benefit to our city's environment (or as affordable) as they are often billed to be.

The Maple Leaf Community Council, supported by groups like Seattle Audubon and others, has been working through the city's land-use process for 18 months now to positively affect the development at Waldo Woods.

We have only managed to alter this planned development of $550,000-$750,000 town homes enough to save 36 of 108 trees. Two certified arborists, including one from the city, say the long-term survival of the remaining 36 trees is in doubt because the town homes will intrude into the roots and canopy of this urban forest.

Waldo Woods is now a significant test case for tree preservation. During public testimony accompanying the debut of the "Urban Forest Management Plan," many asked whether Waldo Woods (or a future parcel like it) would be saved by the plan. The answer was no.

It's time for Waldo Woods to help with another test — a test of leadership. Is Mayor Nickels ready to turn his well-publicized environmental agendas and initiatives into truly green policy actions and save the 100-plus trees at Waldo Woods?

There are always options available in the political arena, and Waldo Woods is no exception. There are a number of ideas on the table, ranging from preserving the entire site to reducing (or shifting) density so what trees remain have a fighting chance to survive.

This problem, and others like it around the city, will require courageous leadership to ensure our growing city does not become, to paraphrase Nickels' own words, "the city formerly known as Emerald."

David Miller is president of the Maple Leaf Community Council.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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