July 29, 2004

Seattle prepares to ‘re-green' 2,500 acres

  • The city's public forests will be restored by 2024 under the Green Seattle Partnership.
    Seattle Parks and Recreation

    Seatte’s Frink Park
    Photo courtesy Seattle Parks and Recreation
    Volunteers help pull Ivy at Seatte’s Frink Park.

    The Emerald City is about to become even greener.

    The city of Seattle and the Cascade Land Conservancy, Washington's leading land conservation agency, have entered into an ambitious partnership to help restore the city's rapidly declining urban forests.

    The Green Seattle Partnership, a cornerstone of Mayor Greg Nickels' recently launched Green Seattle Initiative, will focus on fundraising and volunteer recruitment with the goal of restoring more than 2,500 acres of Seattle's public forests to native-like conditions by 2024. The estimated value of this effort is $2.5 million a year.

    The program will continue the work of citizen volunteers who have donated an estimated 400,000 hours to this cause over the last 10 years. The partnership will strive for a tenfold increase, from 12 acres a year to 125 acres, in the amount of forested land restored by the combined effort of community volunteers, nonprofit organizations, and Seattle Parks and Recreation's Urban Forestry Program.

    The Green Seattle Partnership envisions a healthy, sustainable urban forest — diverse and free of ivy and other invasive plants — and an aware and energized community working together to protect and maintain Seattle's public forests.

    ‘Seattle’s trees are being strangled by ivy and other non-native plants.’

    -- Greg Nickels,

    Seattle Mayor

    Among the key community partners are EarthCorps, Seattle Urban Nature Project, Seattle Audubon Society, Washington Native Plant Society, and park stewardship groups.

    How green is Seattle?

    Seattle is renowned for its trees and green landscapes, but all is not as it seems. The problems go back to the late 1800s, when virtually all of the area's original conifer forests were logged. What followed was a natural "re-colonization" of the logged areas with shorter-lived native deciduous tree species like big-leaf maple and red alder.

    Very few of the native conifers remained to provide seeds for a new coniferous forest.

    Today, many of the maples and alders that comprise over 75 percent of this canopy are aging, in poor health or have already died. In addition, European American settlers introduced non-native species like English ivy and Himalayan blackberry to the Pacific Northwest. Within a short period of time, these aggressive "invasive" plants became dominant in much of Seattle's forests.

    The combination of a dying tree canopy, limited conifer regrowth, and the unchecked growth of invasive plants is potentially devastating. Noted Mayor Greg Nickels: "Seattle's trees are being strangled by ivy and other non-native plants. We will lose much of what's left if we don't do something to save our trees."

    Seattle's urban forest encompasses street trees, landscape trees, trees in unopened street right of ways and forests found in parks and private lands. In 2000, only 18 percent of the city was covered by some level of tree canopy, compared to 25 percent in similar cities. Of this vital green infrastructure, only 2,500 acres, less than 5 percent of the land base, are owned and maintained by the city. But, those remnant forests contain over 35 percent of Seattle's forest canopy.

    A big job needs a big answer

    The Green Seattle Partnership attempts to reverse the decline in our urban forest through four primary goals:

    • Restore 2,500 acres of urban forest by 2024;

    • Provide training and employment opportunities for youth and others;

    • Increase community stewardship in our urban forest; and

    • Increase safe and aesthetic trail access in Seattle's public forests.

    More specifically, the partnership will:

    • Develop a 20-year strategy, a 5-year implementation plan and annual work plans;

    • Establish clear performance measures and targets and report annually on progress; and

    • Raise funds and allocate funds via appropriate nonprofit organizations to restore urban forestland and achieve the above goals.

    How it will be done

    We will restore the targeted 2,500 acres of urban forest in stages. Each site will take four to five years to place "in restoration" — which is the continuous process of forest restoration and stewardship.

    From our extensive experience with similar projects, we have determined the following basic schedule of restoration:

    • Year 1 — Intense invasive plant removal.

    • Year 2 — A rest period followed by further invasive removal.

    • Year 3 — Site replanting with native plants, which are watered for three seasons, monitored for invasive plants; removal continues.

    • Year 4 — Further plant establishment activities (watering), monitoring for invasive plants, removal of invasives.

    • Year 5 and beyond — Monitoring, removal of invasive plants, but at a reduced frequency.

    What you can expect to see

    Through the efforts of the Green Seattle Partnership and the citizens of Seattle, at the end of 20 years, the city will have a native forest that is easier to maintain and sustain. Just as important, we will have an educated, engaged and vested citywide community of empowered forest stewards.

    Mark Mead is senior urban forester with Seattle Parks and Recreation.

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