The headline is provocative, seemingly out of place in this part of the world: “The Evergreen State is losing its trees.”
That was the title of a report from The (Tacoma) News Tribune last week. And it was about as flummoxing as a story saying Iowa is losing its corn or Mississippi is losing its magnolias. But rather than panic, the state Department of Natural Resources is planning to do something about it.
“We’ve spent a lot of time talking about the health of our forest in our natural, rural areas as we’ve seen increased stress from disease, insect infestation, drought — leading to catastrophic wildfires,” Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz said recently at an Arbor Day Foundation conference in Seattle. “But the fact is our urban forest, our urban trees, are equally stressed.”
With lengthy droughts, pollution and construction posing as stressors, the region’s urban canopy appears to be shrinking. Between 2016 and 2021, for example, Seattle lost 1.7 percent of its tree canopy; last year, Portland saw the first reduction in its canopy since officials began keeping records two decades ago.
“A rising rate of tree mortality is coming to a city near you,” said Aaron Ramirez, a tree researcher at Portland’s Reed College.
And there are vast inequities in tree canopies throughout Washington. Seattle’s canopy covers 28 percent of city land; in Tacoma, 10 percent is covered. Vancouver’s canopy is approximately 18 percent, and in August the city was one of many to earn the designation of “Tree City USA” from the Arbor Day Foundation.
Vancouver leaders have focused on increasing the urban tree canopy in recent years, organizing volunteers through planting events and addressing an issue that is drawing increased attention nationally.
There is good reason for that. As the federal Environmental Protection Agency writes: “Trees and other plants help cool the environment, making vegetation a simple and effective way to reduce urban heat islands.” And as a study from Washington State University concludes: “The urban canopy enhances the environment, increases community attractiveness and fosters community civic pride, while balancing economic growth with environmental quality and well-being.”
Through a combination of increased funding, a new youth corps and assistance to grass roots organizations dedicated to tree planting, Franz aims to reverse the declining health and number of trees in the state’s urban forests.
“As people start to see the value and importance of these trees, they see and recognize what the problem is and where the deficit is,” she told The News Tribune. “We can’t afford to actually stand where we are right now today with a rapidly changing climate.”
The Inflation Reduction Act passed this year by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden includes $1.5 billion for the U.S. Forest Service’s Urban and Community Forestry Program over the next decade. And last year, the Legislature passed a law to strengthen the urban forestry arm of the Department of Natural Resources. The office, which had two staff members in 2020, soon will have nine.
Ben Thompson, manager of the state program, told Stateline.org: “We’re on a trajectory of meteoric growth for urban forestry. All of a sudden, everyone’s passionate about this. It’s a lovely surprise.”
Awareness of the importance of the urban canopy has fueled that passion, reversing the traditional view of cities as concrete jungles. That new philosophy is particularly appropriate for a state that celebrates trees in its nickname.