LETTER: Resident gives recap & thoughts about recent Port of Seattle tree meeting

[EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is a Letter to the Editor, written by a Reader. It does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Waterland Blog nor its staff:]

Dear Port,

Thank you for the opportunity of attending the community meeting on Monday evening, June 5, at McMicken Heights Elementary School. I can appreciate the difficulty you are facing as you contemplate removing conifers in “The Evergreen State,” and that you must face a tree-loving public. You have no easy task ahead of you. However, as one of those passionate Douglas Fir devotees, I feel constrained to respond respectfully to a few items from the meeting. I would not normally take the time, but it seems clear that this is just the beginning of a multi-phase project and that you will be entertaining the public again on this issue.

In the following paragraphs, I will refer to the meeting and things that were said, but I apologize that I will not be able to quote by name. I am assuming that the readers will understand who spoke.

I have divided my response into three segments as follows:

  1. Why is the public so angry?
  2. Why do we likely not trust you?
  3. My suggestions.

Why is the public so angry?
The public is angry because information has either been purposefully hidden or skewed on several occasions with regard to neighborhood adjustments – and there is hardly a neighborhood that has been a victim of this behavior more than the little community adjacent to and south of 200th street – my neighborhood.

Often, when the public is notified, it has not been to get their opinion about what should be done with their neighborhoods. They are generally notified about neighborhood impacts because notification is required by law in order to mitigate. In other words, the impact has already been planned and the machine is already rolling. The public is only notified so that they can give input about how the impact can be more comfortable. We hate that.

This particular neighborhood that you are altering has had a staggering number of environmental impacts in less than two decades. First there was a prison, then a third runway, then a jail and a proposed freeway, and now the Port wants to cut down the coniferous forest in their back yard.

No matter what you do to the external flora and fauna in order to reduce the “environmental impact” of this progress, the environment is still impacted by attitude and feel. How does a person feel about living under an expanding runway and next to a prison, a jail, a freeway and a scraped landscape?

They wouldn’t be normal if they weren’t angry. This is becoming the forgotten little neighborhood. And we are additionally hampered in our responses to any impact since our already tiny population has been separated into two different cities. How can we coalesce?

These observations may not help you in your decision-making, but they may help you to understand why the public is so angry. In moving forward, a little bit of trust might help you, but . . .

Why do we likely not trust you?
You might actually be trustworthy, but in using Monday’s meeting as a reference, there were three items that would lead the public to not trust you. They were:

  • Disregard for public comment (in a meeting that was designed for public comment)
  • Lack of knowledge
  • Irresponsible statements

Disregard for public comment
Repeatedly throughout the meeting, one of the administrators attempted to end public comments and get the ball rolling with the public vote about alternatives for obstruction removal. There was only so much time and a job needed to be done.

I can appreciate that this was a difficult meeting to conduct and everyone was tired – but so was the public. They had driven there, too – to spend the evening away from their families, recreation and relaxation. The public did not want to be there either. Thus, it was a bit demoralizing to be cut off and disregarded when valid observations were being made.

A little bit of respect and validation can go a long way in soothing a seething community.

Lack of knowledge
There were a few questions during the session that referred to the FAA and their NextGen plans. Representatives from the Port were either not aware of some of these documents or were unwilling to admit familiarity.

There seemed to be a squishy unwillingness to tie the removing of obstructions with FAA mandates, yet the Port is admittedly only targeting trees based on FAA standards.

The concern is that these trees are only being targeted because of NextGen’s plans to lower approach altitudes. It would be wise of the Port to be aware of this assumption and deal with it head on.

If the Port is ignorant on this issue, Why? If the Port is only feigning ignorance, Why? This is such a hot issue in our local region, it seems that someone would have been briefed before this public meeting.

If you are not prepared, then it is difficult to trust you. If you are prepared, but you are hiding something, then it is difficult to trust you.

Again, the Port may be trustworthy, but it did not feel like it in the public meeting on Monday. And, the biggest reason for me, was the irresponsible statements that were made.

Irresponsible Statements
During the meeting, a couple of statements were made probably in haste or ignorance. Here again, in a public meeting, if over-reaching statements are made to an educated public, it breeds mistrust. The public will either feel that the presenters are being too casual and careless, or that they are lying.

In the Monday meeting it was said that:

  • Mature conifers will grow 60 feet in 15 years,
  • Our plan is to replant a native forest,
  • The land under consideration has been vacated for 50 years

Conifers: in an ideal environment, our indigenous conifers (Hemlock, Western Redcedar, Doug Fir) will grow up to three feet per year for the first few years. After that, they slow down. A mature Doug Fir will only grow just over a foot a year in ideal conditions. It seems like a good number of the attendees at the Monday meeting knew this.

Native Forest: In your reforestation options, it was repeated several times that your plan was to plant a “native” forest. However, it was made clear during the meeting that several of the trees that you would be replanting in the affected area were not going to be indigenous. Even if you plan to plant native conifers in another area, it is misrepresentation to continually discuss the P-4 and P-5 sites as if they would contain the native forest you refer to. I understand that your desire is to replace conifers, but when the public realizes that you are not actually planting a native forest in P-4 and P-5, they feel lied to – again. In assuaging the anger of the public, it pays to be honest up front.

50 years: The P-4 and P-5 sites have only been vacant for about 30 years. The generalization does not mean much especially to someone who has not lived here or who is only about that age. Thirty years feels like an eternity when it is about the length of your entire life. But 30 years is not 50, and the residents of this community remember the details well. It does not bode well with them if public presenters do not seem to understand the history of the land they are attempting to re-create.

I do not wish to shoot myself in the foot by arming you with information that can assist you in moving forward especially with Plan A. However, I felt it would be more productive to engage with you and explain why you faced such difficulty on Monday.

My Suggestions
I did not vote on any issue on Monday because I never wanted to have to say, “Yes” if someone asked me, “Did you vote for this?” I was not happy with any of the options.

I do have a couple of recommendations based on my experience. I have been planting and working a 10-acre, indigenous, mixed forest and field for almost 30 years – only blocks away from the P-4 and P-5 sites.

Suggestion #1:
My first suggestion would be to top the obstructing trees. This would be dangerous and difficult, but definitely cheaper than other alternatives and it would preserve the existing forest and most of the understory. This may sound ridiculous at first, but not if you have ever visited the Redwood Forest. Hundreds of these ancient, coniferous trees have been topped by mother nature and are doing fine.

Yes, it will only be a matter of time before they obstruct again. However, it will not be a 3-foot-per-year equation and especially when it comes to the poplars, they can easily be topped again.

Suggestion #2:
Selectively remove trees that are only already in the obstruction zone. It was not clear how many of the targeted trees were actually already in the obstruction zone or if many of the trees were targeted because they would come into the obstruction zone within a number of years.

My concern is that you would use the 3-feet-per-year equation and remove all the trees that would enter the obstruction altitude within what? 5 years? 10 years? Now, that is a lot of trees!

In addition, if one of the trees is already 60 feet into the zone, that means it has been growing into this zone for about 60 years and is presently not an imminent danger. That means that if you only remove conifers that are at the obstruction height, you still have over 60 years before any others reach a true danger category.

In addition, if you top all the trees at obstruction altitude, you have at least 60 years for conifers and you can re-top others.

Suggestion #3
If you clear cut and scrape the ground, you will remove all the rich top soil and will be planting new trees in barren soil (I hope you don’t choose this). If you are planning on mixing trees in this instance, please choose Alders as your native deciduous tree. They will not grow as tall as Cottonwoods and all poplars have an amazing characteristic: They do not need nitrogen in order to do well. But, as we learned from Mt. St. Helens, even in barren soil, poplars flourish and their falling leaves put nitrogen back into the soil for other species.

I have more suggestions, but this is getting too lengthy.

In addition, if you carefully only top to the obstruction height, it will be at least 60 years before any of the conifers reach the height of the one mentioned in the meeting – which is currently at an offending height, but not an imminent danger!

Thank you for taking the time to read this response. Again, I understand that most of you are just trying to do well at the job you have. You have a tough road ahead in this environment (pardon the pun). I hope that my response and suggestions are helpful.

Traci Buxton

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5 Responses to “LETTER: Resident gives recap & thoughts about recent Port of Seattle tree meeting”
  1. Tony Verreos says:

    Traci Buxton said it all very well, and far too politely. My shorter version is the Port is taking a meat axe approach to brain surgery. Trees are manageable, just as flight paths are, but only if those in charge CARE to manage them for the benefit of the public. It is the duty of all public employees to constantly demonstrate to the public who pay their good wages and excellent benefits and pensions, that you really do give a damn. For all of our high praise of civil servants, it seems we have been badly forgotten by the FAA and those running our airports.

    Thin out the forest. Top only the tallest trees as needed. Plant replacement species that don’t grow as tall, so over years as older are removed, newer fill in and the transition is not a clear cut trauma.

  2. JC Harris says:

    In addition to being one of the best written letters of its type of I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading, it expresses some ideas I hadn’t considered. So Traci, thank you.

    I am coming at this from the point of view as someone who feels that the Port/FAA are simply taking too much and she is being far too nuanced. As she points out, those residents (and all residents of SKC in my opinion) have already been asked to do too much). I don’t want the planes to fly -any- lower. I don’t want -any- more air traffic. And I reject the very idea that there is -any- absolute necessity to have any more. At some point we simply stopped asking -why-?.

    Why is Des Moines constantly being asked to sacrifice for regional ‘growth’ but getting absolutely -nothing- in return. We get -nothing- for our losses. And I’m sick of it. This is a regional and class -war-. The north and east side get rich. But Des Moines gets very, very little in return. In fact, we -lose- every time the rest of the region grows.

    • John O'Leary says:

      This is a very interesting thread and J.C. your comment in your final paragraph is something I have wondered about for years. The stated need for airport expansion and more flights has been the result economic growth and population expansion of the Seattle metro area. The result of which has adversely impacted residents of Des Moines in particular. I lived in Des Moines for many years, in Pacific Ridge, North Hill, and Woodmont as well as working in the city for over three decades so I witnessed this first hand. Sitting outside trying to enjoy the backyard or simply talk was a joke as you looked up to view airline passengers looking out their windows looking back at you.

      We live in an age where government agencies across the nation, including Des Moines charge impact fees for just about everything. Try putting in a commercial development or even building a home without being charged some sort of impact fee for the supposed transgression you are creating for the community. Here we have a very real issue that impacts the real quality of life and economic vitality of the city and nothing is done to get anything in return. Why isn’t the Port of Seattle having to pay the City of Des Moines? Every over flight should cost them. The Port charges a landing fee. It tracks the flights. Why doesn’t the city pursue compensation for the transgressions to its community? Instead the rest of the region benefits and Des Moines feels the pain. Ten dollars per plane would be close to two million annually the city could use to stimulate economic development, help with the pool, senior center, roads, parks, police or whatever.

      • JC Harris says:

        Indeed, as John O’ Leary implies, there needs to be a mechanism for Des Moines to collect a fair impact fee (in essence a toll) for every ‘operation’ (take off and landing) based on tonnage.

        These fees should be used to improve the current livability of cities, but more importantly to my mind, should be set aside to provide for the medical issues that are sure to come. Respiratory issues. Cancers. They are all either here now or on the way. Some we know of. Some we don’t. But they are -must- be provided for.

  3. Stuart Jenner says:

    Traci, thank you for your comments. The timing of these meetings is really hard for those of us with end of school year activities. I had heard of the virtual open houses, while searching GOogle, I came across this story about how some people in West Seatte cut trees, and are now having to pay $400K in fines. Hmm.

    So, on to the open house.


    then click over to here


    The first hard part of any of these alternatives is that in a real open house, people can hear different points of view. In this virtual open house, there’s no place for open QA, for people to see the alternatives.

    The second hard part is “how is an obstruction defined.” P4 and P5 are significantly lower than the runway. So what are we talking about , an extra foot or two above some arbitrary number cooked up by someone in Washington DC who has never even been in Seattle?

    P4 and P5 are so far away from the runway, it doesn’t look like this is anything more than an attempt by the Port to clear land so they then can put in more warehouses.

    I hope the Port will post their point of view.

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