Activists climb tree to save it from removal

An activist going by the group name of 'Droplet' sits on limb of a Western red cedar tree in Seattle on Thursday, July 20, 2023. Climate activists are protesting the cutting of the tree on a housing construction site. (AP Photo/Manuel Valdes)

SEATTLE -- With ropes, a harness, a hammock and a bucket pulley system, masked activists in Seattle have taken up residence in the branches of an old, thick cedar tree to prevent it from being cut down to make way for new homes.

The protest on a private lot is the latest episode highlighting tensions behind tree policy in Seattle as climate change increases temperatures and urban canopy decreases.

The Western red cedar, dubbed "Luma," is about 80 feet tall, with two trunks that are each about 4 feet in diameter.

Its age is not known, but activists have estimated that it could be as much as 200 years old. The Snoqualmie Indian tribe is seeking to have the tree preserved for its archaeological significance, saying Native Americans shaped its branches generations ago to distinguish it as a trail marker.

The protesters have declined to give their names, citing concerns about retaliation. They said they support new housing, but not at the expense of the tree.

"We have to win this tree. We have to win because Luma is setting the tone for every other tree that's under threat in Seattle," one said from the tree. "We have to show that we mean business."

The occupation began July 14, with each activist taking shifts of several days in the tree.

Some local residents hope to see it preserved.

"We were led to believe that this tree was going to be kept," said Andy Stewart, who lives down the block. "Then we got surprised to learn that the final permits were approved with the tree being removed."

The tree is on a development site where a single-family home is being replaced with six housing units split between two parcels. After the city surveyed the site and proposal, it decided that the tree needed to be removed to accommodate the new housing,

The initial plans neighbors cited didn't accurately show the extent of the tree's roots, said Bryan Stevens, a spokesman for the Department of Construction and Inspections.

"The tree sits toward the middle of the parcel, making it difficult to preserve while also allowing for the development to achieve the number of housing units allowed on the property," Stevens said.

Stevens said the city can't revoke the removal permit.

An activist in the tree said she hopes the city can find a way to keep Luma and create housing.

"It seems like there's an easy solution to have the houses that they want on this lot if they would just take a small creative step," she said.

The project is funded by Legacy Group Capital, which did not reply to an email from The Associated Press seeking comment.

The Snoqualmie tribe last week sent a letter to the city asking officials to halt the removal. The city suggested that the tribe reach out to state authorities to further assess if the tree is on an archaeological site.

It's unclear if the tree will be removed because new coordination between the landowner and the Washington Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation is needed, Stevens said.

The department's executive director, Allyson Brooks, said the developer will need to seek a permit since the site has been determined to be a "cultural resource." The permitting process will take 60 days and will include consultation from the tribe.

Cities across the country have pledged to plant more trees to combat climate change and its impact. Trees not only absorb carbon dioxide but also cool cities. Researchers also say old trees need to be tended in cities because new plantings can take 10 to 20 years to start providing environmental benefits.

"Our majestic trees, for the most part, are our very largest native trees. And they are the most valuable in terms of keeping the community healthy and preserving our ecosystem," said Sandy Shettler of the Last 6000, a group that aims to count and protect old trees.

Western red cedars can live up to 1,500 years in forests, according to the Washington Department of Natural Resources.