Not So Clear-Cut

The city's top tree detective tries to crack the case of the Queen Anne cypress girdler. By Nina Shapiro

It was an attempted murder of sorts, and it happened on one of the toniest boulevards in the city, a place where stately mansions, canopied trees, and commanding views of Puget Sound and the downtown skyline draw visitors from all over. Yet this was no ordinary crime of violence. It was a crime against trees—specifically, two towering cypresses looming over the Sound on Queen Anne's Eighth Avenue West, just around the corner from Highland Drive and its renowned viewpoints. Eighth Avenue West, Highland Drive, and a number of nearby streets compose what is known as Queen Anne Boulevard, one of several boulevards around the city considered to be so beautiful that they are public assets maintained by the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department, which owns the trees and the land they are on. So it was, a few weeks ago, that the Parks Department attached an ominous sign to the two trees that reads:

Dear Neighbors of Queen Anne Boulevard:

We need your help.

On or about June 23rd 2006, two mature Cypress trees in front of 1425 8th Ave. W along Queen Anne Boulevard were girdled. The intent was to kill the trees. . . . This was not a random act of vandalism and required some time to complete. We need your help to identify the persons responsible for this act.

A good look at the trees helps one understand the nature of a girdling attack. Somebody has cut into the trees' flesh so that each tree is marked with a barkless ring. Such damage can kill a tree because just underneath the bark lies its cambium layer, through which water and nutrients pass. When a tree is deprived of this layer, says Mark Mead, senior urban forester for the Parks Department, "it basically starves to death."

From his bungalow on the street below the apparent crime scene, a bespectacled man named Jack saw a Parks arborist, undoubtedly Mead, surveying the cypresses. Jack, who declined to be identified by his full name, went up to the arborist and asked him: "Who would do such a thing?" As Jack recalls, the arborist turned around and opened his arms, taking in the houses rising like castles from sloped grounds across the street, and identified the motive by wondering aloud: "Whose view would it improve?"

In a city of views, blocked views, and view envy, the Parks Department encounters such tree attacks with regularity. Mead, a tall, even-keeled man who wears jeans, a lime green polo shirt, and hiking boots, estimates he gets two or three reports a month about Parks Department property. "During the summer [tree attack frequency] goes up," he says. "Lake Washington Boulevard is notorious." It was in that boulevard's Colman Park in 2002 that Mead chatted with a landscaping crew that had just cut down 120 trees at the behest of federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Jerome Farris, who lived on adjacent property. The judge ended up paying the city more than $600,000 in damages plus interest.

Standing by the cypresses on Queen Anne, Jack remembers that, not long ago, a neighbor in one of those castlelike homes had, through another neighbor, approached him about trimming a tall cedar tree on his property that impeded her view. The neighbor had made a similar request to the owner of a mature beech a few houses down from Jack. He ran down to his property to check out his cedar and discovered that it, too, had been a girdling victim. He also found a number of long copper nails in the tree—the same kind of nails that the owner of the beech subsequently found in hers.

Jack doesn't think the culprit was the neighbor who asked him to trim his tree; he says she sounded too distressed about the affair when he called her. A couple property owners on the hillside above the trees plead ignorance as well.

"It's got nothing to do with our view," says one, a middle-aged woman wearing white pants, a black tank top, and a pained expression who, like Jack, wished to remain anonymous. Standing on her porch appointed with patio furniture and blinds, she grabs an electronic blind opener and presses a button. The blinds lift to reveal a birch at the edge of her property, which stands in the line of sight between her house and the cypresses—which she offers as proof that taking down the trees wouldn't benefit her sight line at all.

"We don't have a whole lot of leads," says Mead. He adds that cases like this are tricky to investigate. He and his colleagues can't just bang on doors and question suspects. They're the Parks Department, after all, not the police—although the police have opened a case looking at all four damaged trees.

Even so, it's amazing how much the view issue gets Mead into detective work. "It's always a competing value issue," he says, steering his green (naturally) Parks Department van toward the scene of another tree attack on the Burke-Gilman Trail in North Seattle.

While property owners inevitably prefer views to lush arbor, urban foresters have, in recent years, come to recognize the full value of trees. Not only do they offer aesthetic value but they improve soil retention as well as water and air quality.

Taking his van onto the Burke- Gilman, Mead pulls up to the spot he's looking for, around Northeast 100th Street. On the western slope leading up from the trail are two ungainly stumps sprouting branches that are as bare and truncated as deer antlers. Beneath them lies a blanket of leaf-covered branches that three weeks ago sprouted from the trees—one a maple, the other a hazelnut—to heights of 20 and 15 feet, respectively. The culprit was obvious in this case: Mead had contacted the owners of the house above the trees, who told him that their gardener had taken it upon himself to improve their view.

Mead eyeballs the sight and takes a picture. His job today is to evaluate the damage and to assess how much the city will charge the property owners to clean up the mess and replace the trees. "Well, they're not going to like it," he says, estimating that the cost will probably run into the thousands of dollars.

He walks down the trail a few yards and points to a tree that had been pruned, with limbs removed for some view enhancement but still bearing a canopy to shade walkers and bikers. Ironically, Mead notes, the topping inflicted on these trees will make them grow faster than if they had been pruned more selectively. The Parks Department does, at times, issue permits to property owners who want to prune trees in a manner it approves of. And while they will continue to grow at a normal rate, the maple and hazelnut will probably present their toppers with a recurrent view problem in two to three years.

Mead believes in what he does. He doesn't think allowing property owners to chop down public trees for private gain can be justified. Still, he understands their pain—the way even the grandest of views only makes you want more. At one time, Mead had an apartment overlooking Commencement Bay in Tacoma. He had a 170-degree view of the Sound and the ships passing below. He would have had a dead-on view of Mount Rainier, too. There was only one problem: A huge Lombardi poplar was in the way.

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