The dividing tree

Pat Halsell heard the chainsaw on the morning of Saturday, Aug. 9, and ran outside in her bathrobe. In her back yard she saw a cherry picker, a chipper and men dressed in T-shirts and flannel gathered around the weeping poplar tree. As she watched, pleading, then shouting, the men - under the direction of her neighbor Dan Cawdrey - pruned the tree.A week before, on Aug. 1, a review committee of leading arborists had evaluated the tree, based on a nomination Pat submitted to the Heritage Tree program. Pat heard back immediately that the tree, a specimen rare for Seattle in its size and health, had been accepted."They don't willy-nilly let just any tree on the list," Pat told me. The 60-year-old tree towers over the alley between Fremont and Evanston avenues North near North 36th Street. "My whole agenda was signage, to give pause to hired chainsaws."The trunk rests entirely on private property," Pat explained. "The [city] arborist has no jurisdiction to fine [anyone]." The tree stands on the property line between her house and a parking lot co-owned by Dan, who did not return phone calls for this column. According to Pat, "Dan has been threatening for years to chop the tree down."I don't mean [the nomination] as an aggressive act," Pat explained, adding that she wanted to protect the tree. "I do not recall him ever coming up to me and mentioning it. I knew he had a problem with the tree because I heard about it."HALF-OWNERSHIPPat moved back to Fremont six years ago, after living in Asia, and she goes out most days to walk with her dogs. Through neighbors she heard third-hand about Dan's desire to remove the tree. In her occasional encounters with Dan, the subject never came up.Pat occupies the mother-in-law unit on a property her parents have owned since 1984. She built up the yard - an ecosystem deliberately created to encourage hummingbirds and squirrels - and tends to the weeping poplar. She feels proprietary interest in the tree, although she only lays claim to 50-percent ownership.The broad tree trunk straddles the boundary, with a survey marker sunk in the concrete a few feet away. According to Plant Amnesty's Cass Turnbull, the dual ownership should have protected the tree. "If the trunk is shared, both owners must approve anything done to the tree," she explained.Trees often get removed for views, development and transportation improvements. "Almost nothing can be done," Cass said. "Almost no protections exist." The city arborist can level a fine against damage or destruction of a tree on public property, but only after the fact. "We've lost 40 percent of our canopy" around the city, Cass stated. "Luckily, the mayor and [the city Department of Planning and Development] are looking at ways to protect the urban forest."Cass prefers incentives - property-tax rebates or utility credits to property owners who grow green on their properties - especially in neighborhoods of comparably less green. According to Cass, many cities require a permit to cut down a tree, even on personal property, and these permits are often granted.Cass acknowledged the need to balance the protection of trees and the rights of property owners "within reason." She admitted, "I don't envy the city trying to sort it out," but she suggested, "this is the time to write to your [City] Council members and the mayor."A 'LOST CAUSE'When seeking Heritage Tree status, Pat was warned it would not protect the tree. At the end of August, the Heritage Tree program (as administered by the Seattle Department of Transportation) included 59 trees. This list, available at, contains predominately park trees with 19 addresses in North Seattle, although the Fremont tree was not listed.The pruning severed two limbs, leaving two large circular voids, and left two limbs. When asked if the tree is done for, Pat reluctantly conceded, "It is looking that way." The structural integrity of the tree has been compromised, plus poplars are prone to rot. "The tree will not recover," Cass stated. The poplar "is such a poor compartmentalizer. In my opinion, it should come down. That tree is a lost cause."Over the last month, neighbors have approached Pat about the tree to offer condolence and support. "This is what I love about Fremont: the good that has come out of the tree's demise. I've met so many people," she said.As Pat pointed out, she's long known some of these people by sight, "and now I know their names!"Kirby Lindsay works and lives in Fremont, where she tends to four trees in her own yard, three of which she loves dearly. She welcomes your comments at[[In-content Ad]]