Retired forester says Bellingham can do a better job managing its trees

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDOctober 1, 2012 

A city report says nearly 32 percent of Bellingham had tree canopy coverage as of two years ago.

In comparison, Vancouver, Wash., has set a goal of 28 percent coverage. Meanwhile, Tacoma hopes to reach 30 percent by the year 2030, and Seattle hopes to get there by 2037.

Judging by the numbers, you would think that Geoff Middaugh - a lifelong forester and current chairman of the city's Parks and Recreation Advisory Board - is happy with the state of trees in Bellingham.

You would be wrong.

It's not that Middaugh, who retired to Bellingham seven years ago, doesn't appreciate the beauty of his new hometown.

"Bellingham has the best parks and greenways system in the country, in my opinion,'' he said.

But he said the city can do a better job, a more-nuanced job, of managing its "urban forest," and can do so without a heavy heap of new restrictions.

"I'm not hot on a regulatory approach," he said.

Middaugh retired after working 33 years managing forests and public lands for the federal government. He lives on South Hill, where striking a balance between trees and views has long been a neighborhood issue, and he's a member of Treekeepers, a local volunteer group of people interested in trees and urban forests.

Along with their beauty, the benefits of trees are bountiful. They freshen the air, buffer noise and wind, absorb and cleanse runoff, and provide homes for critters.

While all trees may be equal in the eyes of Mother Nature, Middaugh said that doesn't mean they're equally lovable wherever they happen to take root.

For example, people might appreciate alders, cottonwoods and big leaf maples because they grow quickly, but they also die and blow over quickly, which poses a risk to anyone and anything nearby. (Several years ago, a creekside cottonwood at the end of my cul-de-sac toppled over during a wet and windy autumn spell and crunched a neighbor's parked car.)

The city oversees street trees and trees in parks and greenways, and has regulations dealing with trees and other vegetation in sensitive areas.

There's also an urban forestry section in the recently revised environmental chapter of Bellingham's comprehensive plan. The section notes that many communities have adopted urban forestry management plans, but there's no such effort afoot in Bellingham at the moment, said Kim Weil, an environmental planner for the city.

Middaugh said such a plan, or its functional equivalent, is needed because letting trees grow willy-nilly doesn't make sense in an urban setting. There's no such thing as a virgin forest in a city, he said, so people need to smartly manage the plant life that surrounds them.

"I'm a humanist forester," Middaugh said.

For example, Bellingham's definition of a forest, when it comes to measuring canopy cover, cites vegetation at least 20 feet tall. Cottonwoods easily top that height, yet, as my neighbor found out, there are other factors to consider, such as public safety.

Other things to consider include views, aesthetics, healthy habitat, clearance from utility lines, fire risk and, of course, the expense, both in taxpayers' dollars and in political will.

In Middaugh's view, an urban forest management plan should include a healthy dose of public information to help property owners do a better job with their trees, along with smart priorities for managing trees and other vegetation on public lands.

"Get the right tree for the right spot" is his maxim.


COMING UP

What: "Living with and Restoring the Urban Forest," a talk by Geoff Middaugh.

When: 12:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 18.

Where: Old City Hall, 121 Prospect St.

Admission: $3 suggested donation; free for Whatcom Museum members.

More: To learn about Treekeepers, contact Rae Edwards, 360-778-7105 or redwards@cob.org.

Reach DEAN KAHN at dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2291.

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