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How to Talk to a (Political) Tree Cutter

As many of you with kids know, you would never ask a toddler, “Do you want to get dressed?” The answer will likely be “no!” as the little Picasso-with-crayons is quite happy to continue to scrawl on your wall as they sit there in their diaper. Nope!

Instead, you bring them 2 pairs of socks and say, “It’s time to get dressed. Do you want to wear the green socks or the purple socks?” The goal is getting dressed – but that is not open to discussion. The choice that is presented is just the fun tactics (the socks) that will be part of the fun (hopefully!) of getting to the goal.

Politicians are a little more advanced than toddlers(!), but it’s still important to begin a conversation on terms that are favorable to the argument that you are trying to make. As a tree advocate and communicator, it’s always important to frame the debate and control the narrative (in advance). But what does that mean? What follows is a list of some important pro-tree phrases and talking points, along with examples of how you might use them:

We can have BOTH “It is possible to accommodate urban growth and preserve our tree canopy – we can have both.”

It is vitally important to address this false dichotomy which is often used by developers: the idea that trees are “in the way” and are an obstacle to building (affordable) housing. The issue of existing trees on a proposed development parcel is often presented as an either/or scenario: “Either we cut the trees, or we can’t build the housing.” Please push back on this argument at every opportunity – it is not too much to ask that developers might need to spend money to protect our trees. In Tacoma, builders already get financial incentives from the public – we are the only city in the South Puget Sound region that does not charge Impact Fees... You can always conclude by stating, “It is not appropriate to sacrifice a public resource in order to gain a private profit. The needs of the community must be given full consideration/compensation.”

Urban Infrastructure – “Trees are an essential component of our urban Infrastructure.”

Trees prevent soil erosion on steep slopes, they mitigate flooding during severe rains, and they cool us and our houses during the hot summer. All these attributes contribute to a safe and livable urban space – benefits that all city dwellers enjoy. By framing trees as being a part of the entire infrastructure of the city space, you cast them as being a resource of the commons – a shared resource. This establishes trees’ value to the whole community instead of being simply a private consideration of an individual property owner.

(Priceless) Community Asset – “Trees are a temporary nuisance for builders and developers but cutting them down is a permanent destruction of a community asset.”

This is a tricky phrase because it could set up a conflict between property rights versus the needs of the community. A tree exists, as a discrete “dot on the map,” on this or that side of an arbitrary boundary. But the canopy extends up into the shared space – providing oxygen to all. Of course, it is important to acknowledge that owners have the final say, but this point allows you to make a case for altruism – for preserving a benefit for neighbors and neighborhoods. You don’t have to say the word “priceless.” That is simply my opinion. But, in the time frame that we will need the benefits of our mature tree canopy (like, in the next decade or so), they are simply irreplaceable. Is planting new trees good? Yes! But new trees should be planted in addition to, not in place of, our current tree canopy. Not all trees provide equal benefits or value. It requires 20 years for a tree to be mature enough to sequester significant amounts of carbon. That is 20+ years of no shade, of diminished open spaces, of reduced property values, of lost wildlife habitats. In human scale, in terms of our lifetimes, trees are priceless.

Local Wildlife Habitat – “In a built-up city environment, trees function as local wildlife habitat and are often the only places for wildlife to find food and shelter.”

When you look at a tree, it’s easy to see it simply as a collection of branches and leaves sprouting from a trunk. But a mature tree has multiple ecological niches (microhabitats) such as cavities, bark pockets, dead branches, epiphytes, cracks, sap runs, or even trunk rot. These microhabitats are surprisingly alive - used by a wide variety of birds and animals as a place to live, forage, and breed. Additionally, plants, lichens, and fungi may use an urban tree as a growing substrate or food source. Maintaining these local wildlife habitats for birds, bats, and other insectivores can benefit the entire local community by providing insect pest control as well as naturally pollinate these areas.

Climate Crisis Defense – “Trees are a local climate infrastructure – constantly removing carbon from our atmosphere and shielding us from the worst effects of extreme weather.”

Again, by describing trees as part of an infrastructure – as essential components of a system – you establish their value to the entire community. A single mature tree can sequester nearly 50 pounds of carbon per year and emit oxygen in exchange. We currently have no technology that can perform this type of carbon mitigation – without also requiring energy input. Also, I feel it is essential to say the word “crisis.” We are now way past the point where it seems appropriate that we are merely “warming” our planet or that we are simply enduring a “change.” The crisis is here, and it’s appropriate to say so…

5 years“We have 5 years left to make a difference – there is still time, but we must act now!”

It’s helpful to put a time frame on the issue of the climate crisis. Humans are not very good at perceiving and acting on long-range issues. Stating an actual number helps to define the scale of the problem as an immediate priority instead of some hazy, ill-defined possibility. Finally, you can also use this idea to offer a bit of hope… we are in trouble, but if we take firm, decisive action quickly, we can still save ourselves from the worst effects of climate disaster. But we must act now.

So… how do you talk to a tree cutter? With respect and attention – and a helpful collection of phrases and concepts that you can use to control the conversation or reframe the narrative. If you don’t use the actual verbiage I used (^ above), hopefully, you now understand how you might advocate for trees, so you can find language that feels authentic to you.

It is important to know what you will say and to have your talking points and narrative framework in mind, but ultimately, the best tactic is to listen. Listening builds relationships, creates empathy, and it allows you to gather critical information. (One caveat – if you have been granted an audience with a public official and time is limited, they will sometimes attempt to “run out the clock” by talking non-stop as a tactic to avoid engaging with you. If you realize that this is happening, you must be able to tactfully interrupt and “bridge” back to the topic you need to discuss – that is where these phrases can help you).

Finally, to go back to my first example of the toddler: think about how effective it would be if you yelled at the child. (hint: not very!) No one likes to be shouted at or insulted. Politicians are used to receiving abuse and accept that it’s part of the job, but when you yell at them, it turns them off to your message.

What public officials really need is quality information – whether that information is actual data, a resonating personal story, or a gauge of public sentiment – so that they can make effective decisions. If you have the tools to present your information in a helpful way, you have a much greater chance to affect the positive action you are seeking.

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