On the corner of Harris and 11th in the heart of Fairhaven, a family sits around the statue of J.J. Donovan, enjoying their Acme Ice Cream on the shaded bench. Passersby glance up at fluttering leaves “It’s a good day for sailing” they say, making plans for a rendezvous at the Community Boating Center. Above, patrons of Jalapeños enjoy a view of Bellingham Bay to one side while the canopy of Liquidambar styraciflua or sweet gums mitigate noise from the street below.

We’re on a tour of the trees with John Servais, a community activist and the owner, publisher and editor of NWCitizen.com. Servais has a passion for the trees of Fairhaven rivaling that of Dr. Sues’s Lorax.

Easily overlooked, the urban trees are rooted in the history of Fairhaven. Quietly guarding our community from the effect of urban heat islands created by clearcuts and concrete, alleviating air pollution from local traffic, even fighting climate change by storing carbon. There’s good reason The U.S. Senate voted yay on Bill HR-3684, approving $100 million a year for five years towards the Healthy Streets programming putting effort into tree cover for the poorest neighborhoods- trees are good for us.

But the tree’s story is not always silent. Urban trees, architects, city planners, and businesses are often at odds due to poor planning. Roots rip up pavement causing tripping hazards, canopies block intricate facades, branches fall in storms damaging personal property. The wrong trees can, and have been planted. Trees improperly sized for the space, battling telephone wires and blocking views.

Servais starts the tour by telling us the story of May 16, 2001, when the village of Fairhaven awoke to find 9 stumps lining Harris Ave instead of the 30-year-old Liquidambar styraciflua or sweet gums. Servais, like many in the Fairhaven community, was devastated. There had been no civil discourse, no warning.

After consulting the city list of approved trees, the sweet gums had been planted by Ken Imus, a Fairhaven developer, around the year 1973.  Sweet gums are a popular tree in cities and gardens due to their fast growth rate, vibrant leaves and long lifespan.

However, sweet gums can also be a nuisance- their fast growth rate can overpower city streets and power lines, their aggressive roots cause pavement to heave. If they’re in your yard,  the spherical, spiky seeds or “gumballs”  are sharp on bare feet.

And that was the problem, they were the wrong trees. The mystery of the missing sweet gums was a classic case of ‘cut down the trees to put up a parking lot’. Their roots were outgrowing their space and some of the local business owners had wanted to widen the streets to improve parking on Harris Avenue. The roots and the roads just didn’t mesh.

Servais spent the day the trees were cut standing on one of the naked stumps. He held a cardboard sign with words inspired by Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi. He stood there, tired, embarrassed, and angry until a college student offered to take up the protest for him.

“It’s now been six months, as I write this, since the Harris Avenue tree-nappers made off with our sweet gums. Six months since anything so bland as a house sparrow perched and preened itself outside my office window. Where there were once 30-year-old sweet gum trees—trees whose leaves would have turned by now—there is something of a chasm, a dry geometric wash, as if a flash flood had scoured away the living parts of a city block and left us only concrete.” Said Ken Wilcox, a writer and environmental planner in the 2001 September issue of Whatcom Watch.

There are other examples of misplaced trees. Construction crews inadvertently switching the batches to be planted on 10th and Mill, so that the larger trees now battle power lines and the smaller trees offer little shade to those passing by the Village Green. Off McKenzie, large concrete squares are a relic of trees removed after leaking into the underground parking garage.

But across the village, trees continue to contribute in their beautiful way, offering shoppers a respite from the heat, or cover from the rain. They remind us of the passing seasons and add biodiversity to our landscape. The Ginkgo bilobas in front of Skylarks have a reputation for being memory boosters, Paper Maples stay forever young with fresh new bark. In Fairhaven Park, an endemic Sourwood attracts birds and bees.

Shop owners in Historic Fairhaven have the opportunity to pick their own trees from an approved city list of over 100 varietals. The city suggests consulting a landscape designer, and require approval permits following a set of standards to ensure the trees are planted correctly. Once the permit is approved, volunteers are available to plant the sapling, and the City of Bellingham is responsible for removing or pruning trees.

Trees are multi-beneficial for shop owners as well, not only do they boost their view from the office, but a multi-study program just found that trees boost positive shopper behavior – including store image, patronage behavior, and willingness to pay more for goods and service.
So next time you’re strolling through Fairhaven, go ahead and hug a tree. They’ve earned it.