The forest for the trees: Nolan Rundquist is the bark and the bite of urban tree policing

It seems some people will do anything to improve their view.

Just ask city arborist Nolan Rundquist. The Nebraska native has encountered all manner of arboreal shenanigans on the job, from the overzealous - and illegal - topping of city trees, to vigilante "girdling," a process whereby an unbroken circumference of bark is chiseled from a tree's trunk, breaking the continuous flow of water and nutrients and often killing the plant.

Usually such acts are commissioned to improve visual access to that vaunted Northwest scenery of mountains, water or, ironically enough, more trees, and they can be carried out by anyone from the lone homeowner wielding a chainsaw, to a private arborist hired to trim some bothersome foliage.

Whatever the case, Rundquist points out, cutting into trees on city property without a permit is against the law - period.

Tree-related crimes

And it's not just arborcide - tree murder - that can get you in serious trouble. "Typically, someone doesn't commit arborcide," he said of the frequency of the types of tree damage, adding that such instances of girdling don't happen all that often. Rundquist said that of the two or three tree-related violations he sees every week, most cases involve the improper topping and trimming of trees on city property. A police report is filed every time.

When serious damage is inflicted on a tree, there's little that can be done to save it. "Sometimes they'll come out of it," Rundquist said, "but typically there's not much hope."

If the girdle, or strip of bark, that's been removed from the trunk is narrow enough, a "bridge graft" can be applied; similar to a skin graft, the operation involves taking a strip of bark from a different part of the tree and binding it to the wound with wax.

"It's a real involved process" requiring the expertise of a specialist, he said.

"A lot of times we'll just leave the tree there," Rundquist said of girdled trees. "Other times, the thing just dies out."

Like a detective from some botanical pulp noir, Rundquist most often deals with the aftermath of crime: After getting a call or seeing a report, he'll check out the scene of the tree violation, surveying the area and assessing damage.

Costly transgressions

The state's timber-trespass statute levies steep fines for damage to flora on city property, with infractions assessed according to a for-mula provided by the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA), of which there is a Northwest chapter.

"We'll do an estimate of damage," Rundquist explained.

Values are assigned to specific types of trees, and the cost isn't cheap. Deciduous trees are valued at $56 per square inch; evergreens, $48 per square inch.

A percentage of these values are assigned to each type of tree. For instance, a 20-inch deciduous tree valued at 100 percent breaks down - employing the Pi-radius-squared formula - to 314 square inches at $56 at 100-percent value: approximately $15,000.

When it comes to killing trees, Rundquist said he's seen all manner of techniques. "People try a lot of different things," he says, including poisoning the soil surrounding the roots. It's urban legend that a copper nail driven into the trunk will kill a tree. Of course, Rundquist is reluctant to share too many recipes for arborcide.

Prime views

"I wish I knew why they all came down," he said of the trees he's seen killed.

Obviously, bettering one's view is a common motivation for arborcide. There's also neighbor-to-neighbor feuding, such as one sees when "your leaves are falling in my yard!" Beyond that, it's anyone's guess.

It's difficult to catch a tree transgressor. Oftentimes, the damage is inflicted under cover of night, and you can't run a DNA fix on a pile of sawdust.

"You can't prove anything unless the cops can get someone to testify," Rundquist explained. "We depend on the neighbors. It takes good communication with the public."

Rundquist said tree sabotage cuts across all class lines and demographic distinctions. It's not the case that only the nouveau riche with their expensive views of the mountains are the ones sneaking around cutting into city trees; trees are illegally chopped all over the city.

"It's more the location and how big it is," Rundquist said of the trees that tend to get cut. "Everybody wants a view. There are not too many places in the city that don't have some kind of view."

Perhaps the most baffling aspect of Rundquist's job is the attitude he describes as "I want 180 degrees of unobstructed view." Once, he said, a family called his office requesting that he make a house call so they could show him a tree that was pestering their view. After being led up to a third-floor bathroom, Rundquist was shown a single evergreen that could be seen through the window. It was seven blocks away.

"They wanted me to figure out who owned that tree so I could cut it down," he said. "That's what I can never understand. Is it the more-is-better thing?"

There are also those homeowners who will cut down a clutch of obstructing trees on a hillside and unwittingly create a landslide situation. "Your $3-million house just became a mobile home," Rundquist said, shaking his head.

Proposed street-tree ordinance

One way the city arborist hopes to reduce the illegal cutting of city trees is through a street-tree ordinance that should come before the Seattle City Council within the next six months. The ordinance would regulate the arborist industry by requiring private contractors to get a permit.

No permit equals $500 fine

"Right now, the street-tree ordinance is just one page of code," Rundquist said, adding that a new ordinance would put more controls on the cutting of trees on city property. Cut without a permit, he said, and "you're going to get dinged with a $500 fine."

"It's a tough situation," Rundquist said of dealing with citizens who want to improve their view by either reducing or felling an obstructing tree.

Not that he doesn't empathize. "They have valid points," he said.

Here's how Rundquist explains it to people: "You own your windows." Beyond that, if the tree is not on your property, "you're performing an illegal act" when you cut into it. "We don't issue permits to top trees," he said, bluntly.

Other than that, Rundquist said one way homeowners have of preserving their views is to landscape according to their desires: "That's the secret of it right there: Plant the right kind of tree to start off with."

There are all sorts of resources for folks with questions about trees, Rundquist said, and he's hoping to consolidate access to the multiple government departments that have jurisdiction over trees in the urban environment. Right now, the best place for people with questions to go is the information line at 684-TREE.

And, if by chance, you happen to get caught red-handed holding a chainsaw in front of a felled city tree, don't even bother trying the excuse Rundquist said he's heard countless times: "Don't get me wrong. I love trees. Just not this tree."

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