There are few issues that draw standing-room-only crowds to local city council meetings, but in the days before the COVID-19 pandemic put a damper on everything even remotely “crowded,” the Camas City Council used to pack the house when officials discussed things like funding for firefighters and protecting the city’s tree canopy.
At an August 2018 city council meeting, for example, dozens of passionate Camas residents packed the room to show support for the Camas Urban Tree Program. The program marked the first time city officials had implemented any type of real protection for the city’s trees.
In the months before the council passed the urban tree program, the city’s lead planner, Sarah Fox — who has since moved on to bigger and brighter things managing Washington Department of Commerce’s climate program — said the issue was led by citizens who were shocked to learn during Camas’ comprehensive planning that the city could do little to prevent homeowners or developers from tearing out old and established trees.
Fox also warned in 2018 that the urban tree program was a “good jumping-off point” that would likely need to be adjusted in the future.
In fact, several Camas residents who testified at public hearings on the tree program in 2018, said they worried city leaders were not doing enough to protect some of the city’s older, more established evergreens and were allowing developers to replace trees older than 100 years with clusters of young saplings.
Those worries seem even more rooted in reality this week, as Camas “tree protectors” are speaking out again — this time in an attempt to save eight Oregon white oak (also known as Garry white oak) trees slated for removal to make room for 122 single-family homes in Camas’ Green Mountain area.
At a May 4 public hearing on the proposed subdivision, Christina Menetti, founder of the nonprofit, Washington-based Garry Oak Coalition, testified that the white oak trees are critically imperiled habitat.
“Every single Garry oak should be preserved at this time. There is no excuse to not preserve them,” Menetti told Camas Hearings Examiner Joe Turner. “They are the most important tree genus in terms of habitat and the only native oak in our region. They are a keystone species – more species rely on this tree than any other tree.”
A habitat biologist with the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife also weighed in on the proposed housing development and said DFW felt the developer’s “proposal does not adequately try to avoid and minimize the impacts to these vital species.”
“The preliminary mitigation plan proposal … will lead to a loss in the wildlife habitat functionality.”
DFW habitat biologist Amaia Smith wrote to city of Camas staff.
Smith recommended the developers explore alternate designs that would protect “the locally significant Oregon white oaks that are on site, including potential design plans to protect the 43-inch (diameter) oak tree … if feasible,” and “enhance wetland with the removed Oregon white oaks, including vertical and horizontal snags.”
Under current city code — and the limitations of the 2018 Camas Urban Tree Program — developers are still able to remove established trees and replace them with seedlings.
As more than one person pointed out in written and oral testimony during the May 4 public hearing, replacing white oaks is not simply a matter of planting a seedling since it takes around 150 years for these trees to “grow up” and 500 years for them to be considered “of advanced age.”
So even if the Camas Heights development plants 20 white oak seedlings for every established Garry oak they remove, no one alive today would see those trees grow to their full glory.
In the meantime, what does the city stand to lose?
In 2009, an Oregon State University graduate student discovered these slow-growing trees provided critical habitat for nearly 50 bird species and that the trees’ “influence on wildlife may be disproportionately large, relative to their actual physical footprint on the landscape.”
The city of Vancouver considers the Oregon (or Garry) white oaks to be heritage trees and points out that the trees “are designated a priority species by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife due to their habitat value.”
“They are the only native oak species in British Columbia, Washington and northern Oregon,” the city of Vancouver points out. “The trees provide critical habitat for a number of rare native species.”
A recent article for the Washington Native Plant Society points out that these white oaks also “host more caterpillars and other insect life than any other genus in the northern hemisphere … especially important during breeding season, when the vast majority of land birds consume and feed their young highly nutritious insects or their larvae … not seeds or fruit.”
Birds play important roles in the overall ecosystem – spreading seeds and spores, pollinating fruits, eating pests, picking carcasses clean and fertilizing the soil with their droppings.
With recent research showing our bird population is plummeting — North America alone has lost more than one-fourth of its bird population over the past 50 years — it is clear we cannot afford to lose any more critical bird habitats.
Though it may be too late to preserve the majority of the white oaks on the proposed Camas Heights subdivision, Camas officials can still act now to better protect the city’s other established and “heritage” trees.
We know Camas city leaders can act quickly when they want to — just look at the speed with which Camas Planning Commission and City Council members altered city code to prevent drug treatment and recovery centers from being able to site anywhere within 1,000 feet of a school or park after some citizens got upset about a 15-bed substance abuse treatment center going in near the Dorothy Fox Elementary School.
It is time for Camas city officials to take another look at policies that can better protect the city’s tree canopy and, most critically, Camas’ established, slow-growing, “critical habitat” trees that cannot be easily replaced with a handful of seedlings.