Big Seattle tree spared from ax — for now — as neighbors, tribe rally


Drops of sunshine filtered through a towering Western red cedar’s soft foliage on a hot empty lot in Seattle’s Wedgwood neighborhood Friday afternoon.

The hulking tree, full of carbon and a cool resting place for raccoons and red-breasted nuthatches, was slated to be axed as soon as Friday in the development of six units of housing.

But after community outcry, the city says developers can’t yet cut the tree because the public wasn’t properly notified.

About a dozen community members eager to save the tree, including one person suspended some 40 feet in a hammock tucked in the tree’s limbs, amassed outside the lot on Friday. Some held signs reading: “Leaf the tree be, destruction is a poor tradition to pass down” and “trees = healthy community.” They say there’s room for both the homes and the tree.

The Snoqualmie Tribe Ancestral Lands Movement, run by the tribe, said it’s working to save the tree, and others that have been culturally modified across the tribe’s ancestral lands.

For thousands of years the Snoqualmie people used an extensive trail system to reach fishing, hunting and gathering places and to visit relatives across the region, the tribe added. Along the trails, important locations would be marked by the shaping of boughs, often cedar trees, in certain directions, the tribe said.

The tribe says State Historic Preservation Officer Allyson Brooks asked the city to give the tribe and Washington State’s Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation time to understand the significance of the tree and assess the situation before any work proceeds.

The developer of the property, Legacy Group Capital, didn’t respond to requests for comment Friday, but a spokesperson earlier in the week said the company understands the importance of addressing the housing crisis and taking care of natural surroundings.

“Legacy is in the practice of removing trees only when absolutely necessary after careful consideration of the site’s constraints and approval by [the city],” spokesperson Chantele Machado said in an email.

Passersby stopped to appreciate the giant’s bountiful shade, and mourn other big trees they’d recently lost. Many bemoaned the city’s tree-retention policies.

The city approved a permit for the tree’s removal, among others now in a pile on the lot, on June 8. But the developer failed to provide “correct public notice,” according to the city.

Arborists or tree service providers hired to remove trees must apply for public notice and wait several days after the public notice is approved by the city before removing trees, said Wendy Shark, spokesperson for the city’s department of Construction and Inspections. “However, no one has applied for a valid public notice or had it approved” at the Wedgwood site, Shark said.

Ballard Tree Service, the company slated to remove the tree, backed out of the deal last week, according to a company representative.

The city’s standards define the cedar as an “exceptional” tree — one that provides unique value due to its size or history and should be assessed before removal for development. Under the city’s new tree code, which goes into effect July 30, the tree will be considered under a tier system.

The two-trunked cedar is estimated to be about a century old, said Sandy Shettler with The Last 6000, a group that aims to find and document Seattle’s roughly 6,000 remaining “majestic” trees that have a diameter of 30 inches or greater.

The city has a formula to determine if developers can remove trees like this, with a diameter of 2 feet or greater, under the new tree code, Shark said. If the city approves removal, developers must replace the tree onsite or pay into the city’s tree fund and plant additional trees in the public right-of-way.

The Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties, one of the region’s largest development voices, celebrated the new tree legislation.

“The chopping down of such exceptional trees is additional evidence that City Hall is failing to protect our dwindling tree canopy,” Councilmember Alex Pedersen, who represents parts of northeast Seattle, said, “and recent legislation that claims to protect more trees potentially worsens the outlook for our urban environment in the face of climate change and heat domes.”

Susan Su, who lives nearby, brought her 10-month-old son to a “gratitude gathering” for the cedar Wednesday evening. It was an opportunity to honor the tree and discuss ways to preserve other big trees in the city.

She said she feels the tree removal is an example of the city’s failure to be a leader on climate action and create an urban community that’s in harmony with nature.

Seattle was the first to sign onto the state’s tree equity pledge, doubling down on the city’s commitment to plant and grow 8,000 trees on public and private properties and an additional 40,000 seedlings in natural areas in the next five years. By the end of next year the city is supposed to develop a Tree Canopy Equity and Resilience Plan.

The move came alongside a city assessment that found the city lost 255 acres of tree canopy from 2016 to 2021. It wasn’t a radical change in the city’s more than 15,000 acres of trees, but the bulk of it was in neighborhoods that couldn’t afford to lose it.

Neighborhoods in Seattle’s Council District 1, encompassing West Seattle and neighborhoods along the Duwamish, lost more than 3% of their trees from 2016 to 2021. Parks and residential areas recorded the greatest net losses, making up 78% of the total canopy loss. 

A King County study revealed that on a hot summer day, communities along the Duwamish might experience temperatures 10 or more degrees higher than neighborhoods to the north, like Ballard. Urban trees can help reduce energy use, filter stormwater and air pollution, and cool hot city streets.

“Cutting this tree would be a grave abdication of our duty to care for our other living organisms,” said Droplet, the person suspended in a hammock in the Wedgwood cedar. “We live in this interconnected system where each part provides for the other. And in many cases we fall down on our part of that bargain.”

Staff reporter Lauren Girgis contributed reporting.