April 18, 2002

Blending scenery and ecology

  • The 100-mile Mountains to Sound Greenway crosses mountains, rivers, forests and historic farms
    Jones & Jones

    Mountains to Sound Greenway
    Photo courtesy of Jones & Jones
    The Mountains to Sound Greenway.

    Many people are drawn to the Puget Sound region for its remarkable natural setting and the high quality of life it offers.

    As Seattle spills out into the surrounding valleys to accommodate the region’s exponential growth, forests and farms are permanently cleared to build more houses, businesses and roads. Treasured species such as salmon are at risk, but that’s not all. Seattle’s sprawl threatens the very environmental and cultural systems that distinguish our Pacific Northwest heritage.

    Alarmed by the rapid loss of these legacy landscapes, a group called the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust has vigorously worked since the summer of 1990 to create a conservation corridor across the Cascades along Interstate 90. Remarkably, in just a few short years, this coalition has successfully built a greenway that extends over 100 miles from central Washington to the Puget Sound shores at Seattle’s urban waterfront.

    In its scenic passage from desert grasslands to the high Cascades to the broad lowlands, the Mountains to Sound Greenway crosses a rich mosaic of volcanic mountains, rugged rivers, national forests, mill towns and historic farms. It’s a conservation network that preserves green spaces around highly-urbanized Seattle and outlying rural communities, and connects those open spaces through an extensive trail network. It maintains working farms and forests even as it allows visitors to access nature and experience the history, ecology and beauty of the Cascades landscape.

    This success story would not have happened if the Greenway vision had not resonated with many different constituents. Public and private backing at the political, funding and planning levels was crucial to institute the vision.

    Groups like Boeing, Weyerhaeuser, Microsoft, REI, Puget Sound Energy, the Bullit Foundation and others not only provided financial support, but became active proponents in implementing the Greenway Plan.

    The driving question, “Who else needs to be at the table?” brought together unlikely allies and fostered an inclusive partnership process. As one county commissioner recently put it, “I’m a born-again Greenway believer.”

    A major draw is that the Greenway Trust promotes a multipurpose greenway; one that not only protects and enhances scenic beauty, recreational access and wildlife habitat, but also protects rural community values and healthy economies. The Mountains to Sound Greenway encourages a sustainable Puget Sound economy by supporting the “working landscape,” one where productive forestry, farming, smart growth and conservation coexist.

    The Greenway also helps local communities develop a tourism base that links recreation with cultural and ecological regionalism, taking pressure off resource-based economies.

    If partnership-building is one equation of the Greenway Trust’s brilliant formula, the other critical factor is the building of the greenway itself. Through a series of ingenuous land conservation strategies, the Greenway Trust has quickly assembled contiguous land parcels clustered around the I-90 corridor.

    State, federal and private land exchanges, conservation easements, forest land and public park acquisitions, land donations, and an innovative biosolids forestry program are vital instruments in the trust’s toolkit. To date, 80,000 acres of forest, open space and historic landscapes have been purchased or exchanged into public ownership.

    What next?

    In 1998, the Mountains to Sound Greenway became the first interstate highway in the country to be designated a National Scenic Byway. The greenway vision has inspired local municipalities and public agencies to reconstruct their policies and plans to complement the trust’s conservation efforts, so that the “green effect” ripples out beyond the borders of the greenway.

    With an eye on the long-term future of the Mountains to Sound Greenway, the greenway coalition advances stewardship, interpretation, environmental education and ecological restoration activities. Citizen volunteers have planted several hundred thousand trees, restored miles of abandoned logging roads, and built and maintained many miles of recreational trails. Since 1995, over 9,000 volunteers, including 3,000 youngsters, have participated in stewardship projects. Groups such as EarthCorps and the Washington Trails Association have also pitched in their muscle and support of the greenway.

    Dozens of greenway projects are under way up and down the corridor. These “gems along the greenway” activate the vision on the ground. The architecture and landscape architecture firm Jones & Jones has helped to craft the greenway vision at a regional scale. The firm has also made the greenway concept visible at the site scale. Two projects in particular reflect the spirit and the power of the Mountain to Sound Greenway vision: Snoqualmie Point Viewpoint and Cedar River Watershed Education Center.

    Snoqualmie Point Viewpoint

    Located at Seattle’s forested gateway to the mountains, Snoqualmie Point offers sweeping views of the Cascade Range and Snoqualmie Pass. From Snoqualmie Point, you can get a clear view across I-90 to the majestic face of Mount Si. Standing sentinel at Seattle’s threshold to the Cascade Mountains, a new park will greet visitors and orient them to the greater landscape.

    Yet this ideal vantage point was slated for office park development before the U.S. Forest Service purchased 110 acres with federal Land and Water Conservation funds in 2000, enabling the agency and the city of Snoqualmie to create a true park and conservation area.

    The site recently expanded when The Trust for Public Land purchased an adjacent 40-acre parcel to add to U.S. Forest Service ownership. As a result of these strategic land purchases, almost all the lands that surround Snoqualmie Point on the northern slope of Rattlesnake Mountain are protected.

    The Greenway Trust was able to build the necessary interagency cooperation and attract congressional funding to protect Snoqualmie Point. Now this premier site is preserved for both watershed conservation and public recreation. From a viewpoint park, visitors can fully enjoy the dramatic mountain panorama.

    To develop the park, Jones & Jones is working with the Mountain to Sound Greenway Trust, the city of Snoqualmie, U.S. Forest Service, Washington Department of Natural Resources and Washington Department of Transportation to develop design concepts for Snoqualmie Point Viewsite Park.

    Snoqualmie Point is a city park for community residents to stage local events and performances, as well as a vista park for visitors. The park will also offer travelers and visitors a place to literally experience the vision of the Mountains to Sound Greenway. In addition to the expansive views, they will get an introduction to the Mountains to Sound story. They’ll learn about human influences on the landscape, including the culture of Snoqualmie city, the local lumber mill, the working forest, and the surrounding historic farms — as well as larger landscape dynamics such as volcanic geology, river systems and Pacific Northwest forests.

    An amphitheater will showcase the cultural and natural landscape featured in the panoramic view. Picnic facilities and large gathering spaces will accommodate individuals, families and groups. There will be multiple interpretive and recreation opportunities, including connections to regional trails, star-gazing and options for immersing in the Greenway experience, from hiking to popular waterfalls.

    Cedar River Watershed Education Center

    Cedar River Watershed is a 90,500-acre ecological preserve in the Cascade foothills. Connected to the Mountains to Sound Greenway through the watershed, this living landscape supplies two-thirds of King County’s fresh water supply.

    For over 100 years, Seattle-area residents have enjoyed clean, forest-filtered water from the Cedar River basin. The watershed contains 14,000 acres of old growth forest, providing critical wildlife habitat for elk, spotted owls, cougar, bull trout and the largest run of sockeye salmon in the Northwest.

    Seattle Public Utilities manages the watershed for multiple values, including water quality, fish recovery and habitat biodiversity, and has developed a habitat conservation plan that allocates at least two thirds of the Cedar River’s flow to help restore salmon runs.

    Seattle Public Utilities’ stewardship provides an excellent model for watershed conservation. The agency’s efforts are augmented by Friends of the Cedar River Watershed, a dedicated nonprofit group promoting long-term care of the watershed through education.

    Joining forces, Seattle Public Utilities and Friends of the Cedar River Watershed unveiled the new centerpiece of the watershed in October 2001, the Cedar River Watershed Education Center. The facility is located on scenic Rattlesnake Lake in the Cascade foothills near North Bend.

    Designed by Jones & Jones, the education center provides environmental education to over 40,000 visitors annually, including 30,000 school kids.

    The center’s focus is the celebration of water and its ecological and cultural significance. Central to the facility’s mission is to make explicit the connections between natural systems and human infrastructure. Visitors will learn about the water cycle and their part in it — where water comes from, where it goes, and the profound interaction between the natural world and human needs.

    The education center presents to the public an integrated microcosm of the cycle of the water, the natural history of the watershed, the water utilities infrastructure and the cultural history of bringing water to Seattle. The entire site is a living exhibit that provides richly-layered opportunities for learning, and demonstrates the power of places to teach.

    Separate building structures are interconnected by a series of courtyards. Native plantings seamlessly integrate the campus with its surrounding forest landscape; these plantings reveal the complex interactions between soils, fungi, mosses and microbes essential to naturally purify water. Areas of drought-tolerant plantings demonstrate water-wise gardening practices.

    Water and its treatment is explored and celebrated throughout the design of Cedar River Watershed Education Center. A naturalistic stream collects stormwater and roof runoff as it traverses Forest Court, flows under part of a building, and emerges in a pool in the entry court.

    Frogs and dippers have taken up residence in the created stream.

    “Living roofs,” demonstrate the capacity of plants and soil to absorb, delay and filter water. Rain barrels capture water for reuse, a simple technology repeatable at home. Parking lot drainage is diverted into bioswales planted with wetland plants that slow and clean the water before it flows into Rattlesnake Lake.

    Art and cultural heritage are major elements of the education center’s program. The center’s research library, laboratory, interactive exhibits, and historic artifacts enable visitors to learn about the watershed’s natural history and 9,400-year human history.

    Water conservation protects the long-term health of our city and the diverse habitats in the watershed. The center teaches by example, sending visitors home with the understanding, inspiration and tools to be responsible caretakers of water. As one fourth grader enthusiastically announced after her visit to Cedar River Watershed Education Center, “Wow, now I know what I want to be when I grown up — an environmentalist! Or maybe a teacher.”

    Together, these projects breathe life into the greenway concept. Children, families and individuals can literally see, touch and experience the landscape in profound and meaningful ways. Whether surveying the dramatic panoramic view of the Cascade Mountains from Snoqualmie Point, or discovering the remarkable journey of a raindrop at Cedar River Watershed, visitors are encouraged to perceive the natural environment and their relationship to it with new eyes.

    Jim Ellis, founding president of the Greenway Trust, states, “The bright side of population growth is economic opportunity, but the development driven by this growth can destroy natural systems. To escape this dark side of development, society must dare to discover ways for cities and natural areas to coexist over the long term.”

    The Mountains to Sound Greenway and many projects along the corridor bring us closer to the Pacific Northwest’s magnificent cultural and environmental legacy.

    René Senos is an associate for Jones & Jones Architects and Landscape Architects, and the firm’s design liaison to the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust. For more information about the MTS Greenway, visit

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