At the rate things have been going, we’ll likely end this year with 36 million fewer trees. That’s how many trees vanish from urban areas in the U.S. annually.
And while it may seem like we’ve made great strides in conservation, this is one area where we don’t seem to be making much progress. The U.S. Forest Service study found that nearly half the states had significant declines in urban tree cover during the survey period. Just three states ended with more trees.
Even states that are environmental champions on critical issues struggle with this. For instance, Oregon, which is fighting President Trump’s efforts to weaken environmental regulations, posted the fourth-worst rate of tree loss.
I live near Seattle and I’ve seen the change in my own neighborhood. Patches of forest are regularly cleared to make room for housing developments.
This trend was on my mind following the passing of William Ruckelshaus. His obituaries emphasized his integrity. He famously stood up to President Nixon during a critical point in the investigation of the Watergate scandal. I, however, met him through his work as an advocate for urban nature. He was the first head of the Environmental Protection Agency and was a conservationist throughout his life.
More than a decade ago, we both worked on a book project to benefit the Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle, one of the largest nature areas in the city. I provided images of the wildlife sustained by the park; he wrote about why urban areas need urban forests.
"They are and should remain an educational tool and a reminder to all our citizens that wildlife can live and even thrive surrounded by us humans, if only we let them," he wrote.
This past week, I took a hike in the Shelton View Forest, one of the last large forests left in Bothell, Washington. Less than a mile away, a forest on private land was cleared within the past year. Nearly 100 townhome units will soon stand in its place.
Shelton View Forest is itself threatened. A developer that owns about a third of it tried to rezone its land so that it could build a 40-home gated community. That rezone was blocked thanks to the efforts of community members, but the forest still isn’t safe. An effort to buy the developer’s land and an even larger piece owned by the state has stalled as the city has had trouble finding the money.
During my time there, I saw songbirds and heard a pileated woodpecker. My creativity was piqued by the patterns of fallen maple leaves still dusted with frost.
I’ve been told a great horned owl lives in the forest, though I couldn’t find it. I did, however, see one the next day in a different urban park. A good friend and I had spent the morning trying to find owls. When we couldn’t find any, we decided to stop at an old park just outside the border of a city. It was a quiet place with mature trees. We found an owl almost invisible against the bark of an old Douglas fir.
As the human population continues to grow, urban development is inevitable. What’s not inevitable is that wildlife has to pay the entire cost. We can co-exist with wildlife, but we have to give the animals a chance.