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Tucking native plants into the soil where there had been ivy and blackberry may seem like a small act. But to hundreds of volunteers who turned out Saturday for Earth Day restoration work at 10 sites along the Duwamish River, it was anything but.

“It is amazing to see the difference,” said Stephanie Raymond, of West Seattle, who has been tackling invasive plants along the Duwamish since the 1990s. “It used to be I was carving out blackberries and Scotch broom with an ax. It is so inspiring to see how (the river) has come back.”

The corridor along West Marginal Way South that traces the west bank of the Duwamish was once a forgotten throwaway, an industrial sacrifice zone. But it has been transformed year by year with a green necklace of pocket parks, maintained and expanded in part with the work of volunteers attacking the blackberry and ivy, spreading mulch and planting native shrubs, flowers and trees.

The results were everywhere Saturday. An osprey swirled overhead, headed to its nest. Kingfishers chattered. Caspian terns raised a ruckus.

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Life is coming back to the Duwamish. And so is its identity.

“Don’t call it a waterway,” said James Rasmussen, referring to the name that denotes only the river’s industrial function, as a conveyance for shipping traffic.

But the Duwamish once was, and has the potential to be, so much more, said Rasmussen, coordinator of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition: “It’s a river.

The coalition, a nonprofit group, is working with state and federal agencies and private industry on a $305 million plan to clean up the river, which was named a Superfund site in 2001 by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The plan is in consideration now in a public comment period that ends June 13.

The Duwamish has long been central to the wealth of the people of Seattle. It once included more than 5,300 acres of intertidal and estuarine habitat, including mud and sand flats, marshes, forested wetlands and meandering side channels alive with fish and wildlife that sustained the Duwamish people for millennia.

Industrialists beginning in the early 20th century filled, diked, drained, straightened, channeled and polluted the river and wetlands. Today, only about 1 percent of the river’s original habitat remains.

More than 8.2 square miles of industrial development has been built on the rest, supporting 75,000 to 80,000 jobs, with an annual payroll of approximately $2.5 billion, according to the Port of Seattle.

No one disputes the Duwamish will remain a critical industrial center for the region. The question is what else, in the future, it can be.

“The idea is not to make that look like this,” Rasmussen said, pointing at industrial development on the east bank of the river, as he stood along a last bit of native shoreline on the west bank. “But,” he said, “the two have to be able to coexist.”

The cleanup plan in the works will define much of the river’s future. But so will hands-on work like Saturday’s turnout, said Alberto Rodriguez of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, as he helped coordinate the work crews.

“It helps people get connected to the river, to see it is alive, it is coming back,” Rodriguez said.

“If you have never seen the river, there is no connection, you won’t care. You won’t see the osprey nest, the sea lions that pop up.

“But when you do, you realize, it’s alive.”

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or

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