Not a Single Damn Tree? Really?

And our long-term approach to climate change is…?

And our long-term approach to climate change is…?

• Topics: Bellingham, Environment,

I have been a huge fan and promoter of the City’s Parks Stewards program and, as a side effect of that enthusiasm, have lamented that Public Works seems to have no similar programming for its innumerable blight and invasive species-infested properties. 

With that context, I watched with interest this Monday’s Committee of the Whole meeting which briefed City Council on how $5 million (of $21 million total from the American Recovery Plan Act or ARPA) will go towards “Climate Adaptation and Resiliency.” 

Predictably for our species, every penny of this tranche of cash appears to be devoted to a “People First” narrative: The entire fixation of these funds will go to retrofit buildings for human comfort and health to avoid the smoke and heat — air conditioning units and spiffy filter systems that will inflict greater energy usage, not less, while totally ignoring the natural environment in favor of the buildings and humans that have supplanted it. 

As far as the $5 million goes, so far it is all about human “adaptation” and no long-term environmental “resiliency.” 

I notice similar biases in the City’s Climate Action Task Force Plan and, even though it has been a while since I pawed through all 127 pages of that thing, I doubt that the piddling few paragraphs devoted to enhancing urban ecosystem functionality have been improved upon.

I think more street trees, pollinator gardens, community food gardens or food forests, bioswales and rain gardens, funding to improve the blight and despair of Public Works’ “surplus properties” and blackberry infested Right of Ways (ROW) that should have trails or habitat (or any of the above ecological amenities) installed on them, are getting woefully ignored here. Furthermore, the relentless fundraisers, volunteer work, or guerrilla efforts that citizens  — or Neighborhood Associations — have to resort to nowadays in order to implement simple green infrastructure or climate resiliency tactics are feeling borderline abusive to me: Public agencies need to up their game and meet the crisis, as well as meeting the public demand, so that the burden of the effort isn’t on citizens shoulders. 

I have limited confidence that the upcoming ROW reform dialogues are going to go anywhere — that’s my own bias based upon 20-30 years of being an environmental advocate and paying attention to how Bellingham works — and I’ll wager that the Bee City USA program or Urban Forest Plan, for improving pollinator habitat and tree canopy coverage, will likewise become little more than un-funded and decorative “shelf art” for City Hall’s collection of well-intentioned wastes of time. 

So my questions are the following:

1) Do you foresee any prospect of using some ARPA funds for wildly popular efforts like the Parks Stewards program? For ROW improvements? For pollinator gardens or street trees or rain gardens, etc?

2) Do you foresee any prospect of Bellingham Public Works engaging with a more broad-ranging and holistic view of stewardship and resiliency tactics on the properties they control?

A lot of cities pumped their ARPA cash into investments in much-needed public open spaces, like plazas, community gardens, trails, etc., since this pandemic has proven how vital these outdoor amenities are to communities. I’ll leave you to do your own research on that and ponder, from my critical commentaries above, if Greenways or Parks funding is at all adequate — or even allowed — for the creative reimagining of public spaces (or for ecosystem functionality, ie: long-term “resiliency”) in the densely populated urban settings that define what we have left to work with here. 

These amenities and programs are, in my view, absolutely “People First” initiatives no matter if they have the seemingly forbidden side-effect of planting a single damn tree, or not. 

[The above article is the modification of a letter Alex McLean sent to various departments in Bellingham City Hall]

About Alex McLean

Posting Citizen Journalist • Member since Jan 26, 2013

Alex McLean works in the local trades for a living. He served two 3 year terms on the Bellingham Greenways Advisory Committee, and helped craft the Levies that voters of Bellingham [...]

Comments by Readers

Drue Robinson

Oct 12, 2021

Alex, it’s obvious that mayor Seth has no idea how trees grow, so how could you fault him? In his addressing the Douglas trail easement/ROW issue he states that “... for every one tree that does need to be taken down, the city will be putting up additional ones.” No further comment. He’s obviously spent way too much time in his office where the air must certainly be thin for all the hollow promises crowding out the oxygen. 


Alex McLean

Oct 12, 2021

I am a bit more forgiving of Mayor Fleetwood than many are comfortable with: He was elected right in the teeth of a global health pandemic, after all, and that was quickly doubled down upon by raging civic unrest over both police brutality and homeless issues. It’s an excuse that needs to wear thin, I know, but I need to believe that we are going to see stewardship reforms forced out of this administration lest I end up camping on City Hall’s lawn in protest and despair. 

One of the only bright spots in my fixation over Right of Ways seems to have come from Fleetwood’s interventions; I’m not sure what he did, but I know that our neighborhood was getting absolutely nowhere with Public Works until the mayor apparently nudged them. The Public Works crews magically showed up with their machines and, a year later, we now have a functional trail and habitat going through one of their blight-infested ROWs ... out of the 52 blight-infested ROWs that spangle our neighborhood.

I’m loath to give Public Works much credit since, realistically, they ended up forcing the burden of the labor upon citizens. The 21st and Larrabee ROW project is the first and only time in Director Eric Johnston’s career here that anything so revolutionary as putting a trail through an easement DEVOTED to public transportation, while removing an eight-foot wall of blackberries that had completely covered the site, ever crossed his mind. 

That seems fucking insane to me. 

If the argument is that the City has no money for basic stewardship and trail infrastructure, then I’m all for getting them some damn cash so that citizens aren’t forced to hold fundraisers or write grants for trees and native species then, as is the case at Larrabee ROW, literally invest over 600 hours of our lives so far (documented volunteer hours) into doing the work that the City of Bellingham refuses to do.

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