City arborist takes stock of recent storm damage

We love our trees in Seattle, but some trees are more equal than others.

When the Dec. 14 storm smacked the city with 60 m.p.h. winds, Nolan Rundquist's thoughts drifted toward a couple of his favorite copper beeches.

Thc city arborist said both trees, one on First Hill near St. James Cathedral and the other on Queen Anne, came through.

On the other hand, wind tunnel effects in several parts of the city knocked down trees like a row of dominos. On Beacon Avenue seven trees - maple, cedar, linden - were blown over. Seward Park also suffered, where a dozen old-growth trees, many of them Douglas fir, fell along with non-native specimens. The Park's "Heritage Tree," maybe 500 years old, is still standing.

Otherwise, Rundquist said, the damage was spread pretty evenly throughout Seattle's neighborhoods.

Rundquist noted that Seattle owns the tallest tree canopy of any city in the United States. But, the Nebraska native went on, the record rains in the run-up to Dec. 14 - "the extra straw that broke the camel's back" - combined with high winds to topple trees of all sizes, from a sturdy oak in the Arboretum to a petite crab apple on Capitol Hill.

Seattle is home to many kinds of trees, Rundquist said, with no one species exceeding 5 percent of the total tree population. According to Rund-quist, there were no arboreal culprits in a windstorm like the one we had Dec. 14. Soil conditions, root damage and wind exposure, especially in the city's uphill neighborhoods, were the critical factors, he said.

"The thing I worry about most is the backlash - that cutting a tree down is the only way to stay safe," Rundquist said.

"If you're going to live next to trees, you're going to have to assume certain risks," he remarked, noting that "If you live in Florida, you have hurricanes."

Rundquist, with obvious distaste, referred to housing covenants in an upscale Shoreline neighborhood that does not allow any tree to grow higher than a rooftop.

The arborist allowed, however, that some risks are riskier than others.

"There are still trees that need care. Some have a gap at the base from leaning," he said. He noted other warning signs to look for: dead bark, fungus, decline in leaf size, root problems and the proverbial split trunks, like candelabra, in trees that have been topped.

If your neighbor owns a particularly worrisome tree, Rundquist observed, and the neighbor won't do anything about it, a registered letter expressing concern puts the neighbor on notice.

"If something is really scary, we [the city] will step up to the plate," Rundquist said.

Rundquist said one could also contact the American Society of Consulting Arborists for a written evaluation of a problematic tree.

What really bothers him, he said, are private tree-cutting companies drumming up business using scare tactics: "I cringe when a firm says, 'Oh, that tree will fall on your house. You need to cut it down.'" Rundquist said residents should check a firm's certification with the International Society of Arboriculture before any cutting takes place.

Seattle tree wizard Arthur Lee Jacobson, author of "Trees of Seattle," is also taking stock of the storm damage. Numerous trees cited in his book were damaged or toppled by the Dec. 14 winds. Many of these are in the North End, on the University of Washington campus.

Magnolia's Discovery Park was relatively unscathed, but the Arboretum, like Seward Park, took a hit.

One of the Arboretum's two "Puget Pillar" trees, an Antarctic Southern Beech, lost a big piece of itself. The Arboretum also lost its 90-foot bitter cherry, among other trees. A Japanese cedar, 33 feet tall, blew over on the University of Washington campus just south of Allen library.

"When the whipping winds blew in, they picked up speed over the water. Lakeside trees were the worse off," Jacobson said.

"This storm has shown that certain trees are likely to break up," Jacobson added, varying a bit from Rundquist's view that all trees are equally vulnerable, depending on conditions.

Jacobson said the Sierra Redwood next to the downtown Macy's is an example. The storm removed its top, though, he allowed, it's possible that the heavy load of Christmas lights might have had something to do with it.

Still, cypresses from Japan are more likely to split up than other species, he said, as are Douglas firs, which "were shedding branches left and right while red cedars didn't."

Tree roots injured by construction are also a big factor, Jacobson said: "How we treat our existing trees can affect how they do."

On that point Jacobson and Rundquist agree.

"The problem with native trees," Rundquist noted, "is, this is not a native environment anymore."

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