Living

Love your parks? Then help make them better

All about volunteer work in Seattle parks

Have you walked around a park and seen recently removed ivy and blackberry or some freshly planted native trees and shrubs? The chances are that the work was done by people like yourself. In the greater Seattle area, volunteers play a large role in maintaining our forested parks. Little by little, we’re working on taking back our green spaces from the most aggressive invasive species and recreating the forests of the sort you find in our national parks. If you live in Seattle, you can find volunteer events at Green Seattle. You can find similar programs in Bellevue, Redmond, and Tacoma. I personally have gone through the training to become a volunteer forest steward and lead events once a month in Ravenna Park.

How I got involved

When I moved into my house, I found a few little Douglas Fir trees growing under the power lines and close to the foundation. At first I thought about ripping them out and putting them in the compost bin, but I love our native trees and it seemed like too much of a waste. Instead, I planted them in some flower pots, gave them some water, and set off searching for someplace where they could grow tall. Soon I had a backyard tree nursery

After poking around online and emailing the city, I connected with Maya Klem of Forterra and the Green Seattle Partnership (GSP). The GSP is a partnership between the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department and the nonprofit org Fortera, and it is dedicated to restoring and maintaining green spaces throughout the city – especially our parks. Maya recruited me to become a Forest Steward. After a couple of days of training and reading, I began leading volunteer events in Ravenna Park every month. 

How and why GSP got started

The Green Seattle Partnership was established 2004. The strategic plan for 2018 explains its origins

With the arrival of the Puget Sound region’s early settlers came significant logging and landscape alterations that impacted local ecosystems, making it difficult for Seattle’s native forests to sustain themselves. By the early 1980s, it became clear that human activities were impacting the health and longevity of the trees and natural areas in Seattle. A citywide habitat assessment in 2001 confirmed that many forested parklands were inundated with invasive plants, choking out the tree seedlings needed to sustain a healthy forest. In 2005, a study using citywide habitat data found that invasive plants accounted for at least 50 percent of the understory cover in Seattle’s forested acres. English holly and cherry laurel comprised over half of all the regenerating trees in Seattle’s forested parklands; invasive species such as English ivy and clematis posed a particular threat, as the added weight of these climbing vines can cause mature trees to fall over, especially during high winds. Forest health was in decline.

By the time Green Seattle Partnership was established in 2005, what remained were remnants of fragmented forest where some trees were reaching the end of their lives with little to no intermediate-aged or new trees present to create a future forest. Seattle’s forested parklands were host to enough English ivy to cover 630 football fields, and 900 football fields of Himalayan blackberry. Many of Seattle’s forested parklands were not recognizable as park properties, often mistaken as neglected private property as the aggressive growth of these species out-paced the existing level of stewardship to control them.

In 2004, then-Mayor Greg Nickels asked Forterra (formerly Cascade Land Conservancy) to partner with the City to help bring Seattle’s forested parklands back to health. At the time, Forterra was in the process of creating the Cascade Agenda, a 100-year vision for the Puget Sound Region that offers a balanced approach to conservation and community building, encouraging collaboration across all sectors considering environmental, social, and economic need. A Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the two entities and GSP was born. A working group was created to develop a 20-Year Strategic Plan and establish goals and objectives needed to achieve their vision. Forterra raised $3 million in funds during the first five years of the Partnership to support the development of the program and initial accomplishments. This initial jumpstart was matched with public funding as the Partnership proceeded in subsequent years.

GSP has a diagram explaining what’s happened to our forested parks and why we need to maintain them. 

The solution is to rip out the ivy and blackberry and plant an understory of native shrubs and groundcovers as well as new trees to replace the aging and maples and cottonwoods that dominate the parks. I’d found the right spot to plant my Douglas Firs!

Ravenna Park

Ravenna Park is a large and beautiful forested area with a complicated history. It was once a private nature park featuring a hot spring and miles of trails. The park was privately owned with a 25-cent admission charge, but it was considered to be one of the foremost attractions for visitors to the Seattle area. One of its most famous features was the Roosevelt Tree, a massive old growth Douglas Fir named after the president who created the National Parks system. It was also called “the big stick.”

From there, the story gets a little sad. After the park became managed by the city,a corrupt parks administrator had the trees cut down for firewood and pocketed the money. As the city expanded, the parts of the river system were diverted into the sewers, and the salmon run became what is now Ravenna boulevard. The hotspring remains, and the creek running through the park today was lovingly restored by neighborhood volunteers.

The park that we have now is the result of decades of restoration by volunteers from the neighborhood and the city. Many of the medium sized trees in the ravine were planted in the 1980s and 90s, and some of the larger ones were planted in the early 20th century by residents after the illegal logging took the old growth forest. On the hills, you can find a canopy of big leaf maple and Douglas Fir, and the ravine is filled with Western Red Cedars and Western Hemlock. Unfortunately, there are plenty of invaders too.

About 80-90% of the work of volunteers, including forest stewards, consists of removing a handful of invasive species that tend to take everything over if left unchecked. They are 

  1. English Ivy, which dominates the landscape and climbs up the trees if left unchecked. It can be ripped out by the roots
  2. Himalayan Blackberry – this nasty, thorny plant features some delicious berries, but it is difficult to rip out and spreads quickly. Rubus bifrons is the scientific name of this plant and it  is actually naive to Europe and not the Himalayas – the name comes from a case of mistaken identity dating back more than a century. 
  3. Morning Glory – they have beautiful flowers but this weed tends to creep upward around native plants and can be difficult to remove.

While invasive removal takes most of the time and effort, we are rewarded with reclaimed spaces where we can plant native trees, ferns, shrubs, and ground covers. I have been able to find spots for several of my Douglas Fir trees. The larger ones have gone into newly reclaimed spaces and I’ve planted the smaller ones in tree stumps, like the big leaf maple below. Planting in stumps mimics the nurse logs naturally found in forests and provides new trees with water and nutrients that they need to grow as well as space free from competition from other plants.

In addition to my backyard, as a forest steward I’m able to get plants from local native nurseries once a year through a taxpayer funded program.. The trees, shrubs, and groundcovers help to keep the invasive species at bay and prevent erosion. Most importantly, they are growing up and spreading and slowly helping to turn the park back into a beautiful, healthy forest. 

The area I’ve helped clear and replant with a hundred or so volunteer hours sits near the intersection of two big paths near the entrance to the park. Thousands of people walk by it every week, and it gives me a lot of pleasure to know that I’m making this public space better.

If you want to contribute to your parks and the city, plus restore a little piece of this land to a more natural state, please go ahead and sign up to volunteer

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