Chain Saw Greg

Cutting down the city's trees should never be easy.

Paul Bunyan used to live in these parts, or at least the storyteller who made him famous did. He embodied the old Northwest: a big brute and his blue ox transforming the land. I went to a summer camp near the onetime timber town of Granite Falls. The camp was located on Purdy Creek, which got its name, we were told, when Bunyan spit out a great gob of brown tobacco juice and proclaimed, "Ain't that purdy?"

Some swimming hole.

If you talk to various activists around town, we still have a brute who likes to cut trees, that big blue-state ox himself, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels.

"Chain Saw Greg," some people call him, especially those who are concerned with his plans to cut down trees in Occidental and Seward parks and his generally friendly attitude toward developing any green space that could support a skinny skyscraper.

Maybe it's a bum rap. The mayor was gracious enough to come down to the Fenix in Pioneer Square last month to kick off Seattle Weekly's music awards ceremony. I swear from up-close, sober observation that he did not walk in from Occidental swinging a buzzing Stihl.

Nevertheless, the mayor embodies a kind of old-school boosterism that sees growth and development as the solution to every civic problem. To make Pioneer Square more development-friendly, for example, Nickels definitely wants to make major changes at Occidental Park, and getting rid of a lot of the trees is part of the plan. The bocce ball courts are already in place, though the Astroturf and pony rides—yes, pony rides—got nixed, at least for now.

But there is a culture war over the park. Some see it as little more than a holding pen for the homeless during the hours they are turned out of the Pioneer Square missions. Others see it as a historically significant architectural landscape that played an essential role in helping to revitalize the neighborhood. Others see it as a place with the potential to be much more—not so much a park as a multiuse urban space. Clearing out a few of the overgrown trees might give it a little breathing room, make it more inviting, and provide less cover for drug deals. On the other hand, it would also represent an enormous change and possibly set a worrisome precedent for cutting other greenery in Pioneer Square—greenery that has been coaxed out of a once-dying neighborhood with sweat and vision and a belief in preservation and restoration.

Freeway Park is another place targeted for selective logging. This entirely man-made park over Interstate 5 was supposed to become a kind of natural oasis in a most unnatural place: a forest glade with a gushing waterfall, straddling a major urban freeway. But the trees and shrubs have matured and combined with the concrete design to make a safe haven for rapists, druggies, and the homeless. Consultants have suggested thinning the trees and creating more open space and more daylight. But braving Freeway Park at midday, wandering its odd passageways under the green canopy, you find a really wonderful, forgotten concept that would better be refined with a velvet gardening glove than a sledgehammer and chain saw. While there are some problems with the park's design and greenery, let's not blame the trees for societal dysfunctions: Trees don't mug people; people mug people.

Seward Park represents some different issues. If you think peeing on the Koran is offensive to Muslims, how do you think some locals feel about cutting some of the last old growth in the city? There is no question that some trees at Seward need to come down. I've seen some oaks that looked healthy to the untrained eye, but when felled, their massive interior rot was readily apparent. These have become hazards near well-used public paths or picnic spaces. But it's another question when the timber cutters consider ranging deep into the old-growth stands of fir and cedar. For some people, these are sacred groves; I've noted over the years that some folks make regular ritual offerings to these trees. While few would argue that Seward is a full-blown old-growth forest, it is a unique remnant of ancient trees where nature should take its course. If a tree is going to fall in a forest, shouldn't it be allowed to fall on its own?

Cutting down trees in Seattle should never be easy, especially in a city with so much to make up for on that score. The timber business is in our civic DNA. Seattle's oldest profession wasn't prostitution—that was the second—it was sawmill work. "Skid Road" was a term for where felled trees were skidded down the hills to the mill on Elliott Bay. Many of Seattle's fortunes came from people whose families felled the forests. As civic watcher David Brewster notes, many of the scions of these old timber fortunes are the most ardent tree huggers today. Mossback's paternal grandfather made a small fortune inventing new kinds of logging equipment that could strip the steep hillsides even faster. Like many Scandawegians, he regarded forests like most people view lawns: something to be mowed regularly. Tree-free Ballard is a living monument to this type of thinking.

I think we have a better ethic today. We should let nature—and the trees—have a strong "say" in civic affairs, certainly a voice as loud as a buzzing chain saw.

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