When I first saw the construction site at 21st Avenue and Ray Street I was shocked, as were a number of people who called to ask me about the grove of ponderosa pines that had vanished. Exchanges with city staff helped me understand Spokane’s integrated plan to manage stormwater. Working on road and bridge construction projects with the Spokane County engineers for 13 years had enlightened me about stormwater management challenges.
The reason we need the Ray combined sewage overflow tank, and several others to be constructed in the next few years, is because we have paved the natural landscape, removing ponderosa, camas and other ground cover that once caught rain and snowmelt, filtering and slowly releasing it to replenish our groundwater and eventually the Spokane River. As Spokane has grown and expanded its network of streets and sidewalks, less and less permeable or natural areas remain to capture the precipitation. Water, contaminated with particulates and toxins from the air and paved surfaces, was routed from South Side hills of basalt through gutter inlets to sanitary sewers.
As humanity has for centuries, residents of Spokane view our natural resources (clean air, water and fertile soil) and the free life-support services they provide as limitless. Logging of the ponderosa and disruption of native landscapes for both public and private projects became the norm and virtually invisible, as our native tree was removed one at a time from residential property, and by the acre for new development.
Spokane is not unique. According to a U.S. Forest Service study published recently in Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, tree cover in urban areas of the United States is declining at a rate of about 4 million trees per year.
You may not know Spokane was originally built from a ponderosa forest. Ponderosa stands still announce our city as you approach it from the east, west and south. These native trees helped create the unique habitat that became Spokane Falls. Unlike other cities, Spokane has no laws regulating the removal or replacement of trees from private property. The land and everything on it are under the control of the owner. Many local developers have chosen to remove ponderosa, and plant their “signature tree” – honey locust, London plane, linden, sunset maple or quaking aspen. Unlike the ponderosa, most of these exotic trees require irrigation, and have proved to be problematic in other ways.
Fortunately, attitudes are changing and steps are being taken for the propagation and preservation of our native tree. Spokane Urban Forester Angel Spell says the park department has purposefully planted more ponderosa “in parks over the last few years, including Campion Park, Sky Prairie, Glover Field, Riverfront Park Conservation Area, and Comstock Park,” with plans “to plant up to 20 more at Comstock and dozens more at Finch Arboretum next year.”
Several people have suggested that the ponderosa be proclaimed the city of Spokane’s official tree. Also, the citizens of Spokane should be reassured that anyone removing ponderosa from a development site will inventory the trees to be eliminated, then propose and fund a plan for their replacement somewhere in Spokane. Another option would be commensurate contributions to Reforest Spokane, a program of Spokane’s Park and Recreation Department (spokaneurbanforestry.org) or to SpokanePonderosa.com, a nonprofit organization and catalyst for urban ponderosa reforestation efforts in Spokane County.