OPINION: Is Burien Really Worthy Of Being A “Tree City”?

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An Editorial by Jim Branson

On Arbor Day, the City of Burien called our attention to the beauty and value of trees by planting a dogwood in Dottie Harper Park.

This is commendable, and if it inspires people to plant appropriate trees in their own yards, it could have some long-term benefit.

We might also benefit by paying attention to the trees we’ve lost. In recent years, Burien has lost hundreds of trees, a few here, one there, a dozen more over here. These trees fall silently, when we don’t pay attention, and one might not even be aware of the gradual loss of canopy if no one takes the time to notice the missing trees. Ideally, the City of Burien should have an inventory of its trees, with notes on their health, so we can know if we are successful in being a Tree City U. S. A., as we were designated 7 years ago. This would take a coordinated effort involving arborists, but we can start by cataloguing the trees we have lost recently.

If you go to Google Maps and choose the Street View at 4th SW and SW 152nd, you can drive down memory lane and see the trees we’ve lost in that block beside the new Town Square. It was a green canopy from more than twenty trees, making a shady street, providing relief at the height of summer, and softening the big ugly box of the Dollar Tree store. Most of those large, healthy trees are gone, and it will take 30 years for that canopy to be replaced:

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Along Des Moines Way, from 156th north to the freeway, we’ve lost about a dozen large shade trees to a public works project. You can see them on the Google Maps aerial view, but they are missing at the time the street view was shot. Further south on Des Moines Way, at 176th, you’ll see a wide swath cut through the margin of a wetland. Dozens of trees were cut down for this “park,” but I have visited this site a dozen times and never seen a single person walking along this trail to nowhere. It seems more likely that the sole purpose of bulldozing those trees was for the convenience of the sewer district when they installed a new line.

At Lake Burien School Park, the large poplars were deemed healthy by the first consulting arborist, but the City found a different arborist to say they were diseased, and they cut them all down, healthy or not. Whatever the reason, we are losing trees far faster than new ones can take their places.

It’s not just public lands that feel the bite of the chainsaw. Private property owners are taking down mature trees, one by one. You don’t necessarily notice one tree missing here or there, but if you take the time to walk through your neighborhood and check, you’ll see that the missing trees add up to a substantial loss. In the Seahurst neighborhood, in the past year, at least fourteen significant, mature, healthy (as far as I could tell) trees were cut down at ten residential addresses. For the most part, these homeowners cut their trees legally, although a few in areas with steep slopes might have required a permit and might have been denied. State law prohibits the cutting of trees without a permit within a certain distance of the eagles’ nest tree in Eagle Landing Park, but those rules are confusing and enforcement is lax.

If we wanted to, instead of Arbor Day, we could celebrate Chainsaw day, and all the homeowners in Burien could cut down all their trees at once while the City mows down trees in parks and along streets. Obviously, this would be absurd and horrific. Why is it any less absurd and horrific to lose our trees one by one?

The Tree City USA website says that Burien has been a Tree City for seven years. It also says that in order to be certified as a Tree City, the city need to satisfy four requirements:

  • A Tree Board or Department
  • A Tree Care Ordinance
  • A Community Forestry Program With an Annual Budget of at Least $2 Per Capita
  • An Arbor Day Observance and Proclamation

As far as I can tell, the Tree Board disbanded a long time ago, and I was unable to find any reference to Burien’s Community Forestry Program or its budget (perhaps it’s a subcategory of some other budget or program). The City’s tree ordinance has a host of inadequacies, but it doesn’t even cover the majority of our trees, located on private property.

Twenty years from now, when we celebrate Arbor Day with the planting of another tree in another park, what will our urban forest look like? Without a detailed inventory, and if people don’t pay attention to this gradual loss, we might be significantly poorer in trees without even realizing it.

If you look at the King County aerial photos of Burien for 1936 and 2008, you can see, obviously, that we have lost the majority of our urban forest canopy:

For many reasons, environmental, economic, and aesthetic, it is important to reverse that loss and start increasing our canopy cover. If we don’t get serious about managing our trees collectively and offering incentives for homeowners to plant and retain trees, Arbor Day plantings will only be symbolic and futile.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Jim Branson is a longtime area resident and environmental activist. Previously, he wrote an editorial on “Earth Hour” that received quite a few Comments from Readers. What do you think of his opinion on Burien’s trees? Please Comment below.

If you have an opinion about a local issue and would like to contribute, please email us.]

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2 Responses to “OPINION: Is Burien Really Worthy Of Being A “Tree City”?”
  1. I completely concur with Jim's wish for more attention to trees in Burien. There are a number of "heritage" trees that need attention, and a Tree Board would be an excellent way to do that. The Historical Soceiey is contacted regularly by citizens that want an important tree saved. Right now there is no machinery in place in the city to do that, and no apparent interest at the city level to make it happen.

  2. "These trees fall silently, when we don’t pay attention, and one might not even be aware of the gradual loss of canopy if no one takes the time to notice the missing trees."

    Thank God we have finally resolved the age-old question: "If a tree falls in a forest and there's nobody there to hear it, does it make a noise?"


    The cool part is that the fallen trees become ecosystems of their own, and if they are left as downed logs, other life will grow from them. If we get out and plant a few replacements (remarkably easy with young trees, actually) they will form the canopy over the fallen logs to promote those shade-loving life forms to keep the cycle going.

    Remember also that every log is a bench to sit on and enjoy lunch in a natural environment to watch birds and other animals…and the pictures can be great!

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