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.


Jon Humphrey

Oct 23, 2021

My comments are more general. For example, I’ve been looking into how the school administration has been greenwashing their efforts. Here’s what I think their lack of any logical or reasonable response is tied to. When it comes to the upper echelon, they are slowly starting to wake up to the fact that they have really screwed up the environment, and although we are all responsible, they are more responsible. Still though, it hasn’t affected them yet, so this is still pretty much entirely off of their radar. They are hoping that “some amazing new young people will solve Climate Change, save the environment, etc.” Without them having to even consider changing their lifestyles. As always, they blow off their own responsibility and put it all entirely on anyone currently 40 and under. I see this not just with the COB and school administration, but just about every large entity I look at. They’ve simply been full of shit for so long that they can’t think of any other way to respond than with tired excuses. Who is to blame? Well the public who keeps letting them get away with it.

As far as Fleetwood goes. There is no excuse. For example, the states of Washington and California have declared broadband as critical parts of an environmental relief effort, especially from the standpoint of reducing transportation by car. Fleetwood intentionally missed a golden opportunity when he made our Climate and Energy Manger, Seth Vidana, an employee of the very corrupt enemy of the people and the environment, our infamous Native American remains desecrating public works director Eric Johnston. On top of that, Fleetwood could have simply Open Accessed our existing public fiber network like they have in Mount Vernon, but he allowed Johnston to make a fake broadband group instead with a voting member from WAVE on it.

So, we are in the 2nd winter of the pandemic and Johnston has kept our existing public network out of the hands of the pesky public that owns it. His crimes hardly stop there as you and others often note especially in relation to the environment. Still, no matter the issue Fleetwood seems to keep giving more and more control to Johnston and refusing to investigate his many misconducts. What the hell is going on down at city hall? Do we in effect have Mayor Johnston?  I remind everyone that Johnston was an interim public works director when Fleetwood took office. An appropriate move would have been to conduct a nationwide search for a Public Works director. Fleetwood opted not to do this. And so we fast-forward to the Padden Creek Apartment Scandal and the damage done there to the environment.



Alex McLean

Oct 23, 2021

Thanks for the added context, Jon, since our various battles and gripes with Public Works or the School District oftentimes overlap: we need these public agencies to have a more holistic view of their programs and to stop foisting all the heavy lifting of “climate adaptation and resiliency” onto citizens shoulders. 

It is a bit off-topic, but I see real similarities in how both of these entities currently operate in regard to environmental stewardship. They both, for example, have no core policy directives or direct funding for any aspect of what I am loosely defining as “green infrastructure.” * Instead, they rely upon citizen volunteers or a diaspora of contracts with non-profit groups to provide them with photo ops and greenwashing propaganda. 

The School District thus washes away criticism of its flagrantly environmentally abusive Bus Barn facility by promoting, instead, a bunch of kids painting a wall with orcas through one of their partnerships with local environmental groups. 

Public Works, meanwhile, has zero dollars devoted to trail building or invasive species removal. They helped our neighborhood build the first trail through an abandoned and blight infested ROW last year—I need to emphasize that it would have been utterly impossible if they didn’t lower their resistance to the idea—but they punted the vast bulk of the labor unto citizens and non-profits shoulders. 

It was surreal to attend the recent MNAC meeting on Wednesday and hear from so many neighborhoods, like mine, who want more basic green infrastructure—more “resiliency and adaptation”—from this City. Most were lamenting the lack of street trees and the burden of expense and maintenance (never mind logistics of getting the damn trees in the ground!) the City ignores when they ask ‘hoods to do this work all on their own.

We need to recalibrate the status quo here.

Some of these gigantic departments and local governments need to step up and actively engage with the climate crisis. And they need to do it now.


* (Public Works might be tempted to argue that they have a whole department, “Natural Resources,” devoted to this green hippie stuff. It’s true. They do. But there appears to be no overlap between them and the macho roads and sewer and water crews—the stewardship and maintenance on public ROWs or surplus properties that this side of Public Works controls is somewhere between pathetic to nonexistent.)




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