It may take a little imagination to see Yesler Swamp, in its partially restored state, as a jewel of nature.
But the second-largest swamp on Lake Washington, and the one farthest from the endless drone of Highway 520 traffic, is well on its way to becoming a western red-cedar swamp — the kind that would have ringed the lake more than 150 years ago.
Fifty years from now, when the cedars have grown up, these 6 acres sandwiched between the Center for Urban Horticulture and Laurelhurst could be a portal into the lake’s past.
“It’s quite an unusual place,” said Kern Ewing, professor of environmental and forest sciences at the University of Washington and co-director of the UW’s Restoration Ecology Network — a network of students who volunteer for conservation and ecological restoration throughout the region.
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For more than 10 years, UW students have labored to eradicate the nonnative reed canary grass and blackberries. They’ve planted western red cedar and willows and watched as other native plants took root in the shade — red osier dogwood, salmonberry, ferns and vine maple.
This spring, the Washington Conservation Corps started construction on a 1,200-foot-long raised boardwalk over the area’s mucky black soil.
The boardwalk is being funded through grants and neighborhood donations. When it’s complete, visitors will be able to get closer to a lagoon that harbors wildlife, including about 100 different species of birds.
The area is accessible by a short trail at the east end of the Center for Urban Horticulture parking lot, although the area closest to the lake is closed because of the boardwalk construction. Part of the boardwalk should be complete and open later this summer.
It’s a good place to see bald eagles, great blue herons, pileated woodpeckers and barred owls, and occasionally, in the late morning or early evening, a beaver.
“Hopefully, with restoration, there will be more food for them,” said UW student Cameron Newell, who is getting his master’s in environmental horticulture.
Before white settlers arrived in Seattle, this shoreline area on Union Bay was a gathering place for Native Americans, according to a history by Friends of Yesler Swamp.
Much of Yesler Swamp was underwater at the time — Lake Washington was about 8 feet higher than it is today. Pioneer and two-time Seattle Mayor Henry Yesler acquired the land and built a sawmill near the present-day swamp to mill lumber that surrounded Lake Washington.
In 1916, the lake levels dropped when Lake Washington was connected to Lake Union by way of the Montlake Cut, and the newly constructed Chittenden Locks in Ballard were used to control lake levels and provide a passage for boats between fresh and saltwater.
Yesler’s sawmill burned in 1895, was rebuilt and burned again in the 1920s. The UW purchased the land shortly thereafter, and during World War II, Yesler Swamp became a P-Patch-like Victory Garden that supplied local food during the war years.
When the war ended and the gardens were abandoned, the land was taken over by blackberries and reed canary grass.
The UW partnered with Friends of Yesler Swamp about 10 years ago to begin bringing the area back to a more natural state.
At 12 acres, if you count an adjacent area, Yesler Swamp is the second-largest swamp on Lake Washington, smaller by a few acres than 16-acre Foster and Marsh islands, Ewing said. But it’s more peaceful because there’s little traffic nearby. Highway 520 is within sight across the lake but not very loud from this site.
Ewing’s restoration strategy is to pull up blackberries, crush reed canary grass, smother everything in wood chips and then plant slips of willow and western red cedars to shade everything out and take over.
Gesturing to the young red cedars, just a foot or two tall, growing in the shady, moist ground, he said: “These guys are just as happy as they can be.”
In 50 years, the poplars and willows will reach the end of their life cycles, and the cedars will take over.
Not all creatures happy
Wild creatures that live in the swamp haven’t always appreciated humankind’s efforts to restore it.
Last week, bald eagles scolded Washington Conservation Corps workers while they were building the boardwalk.
One day last year, hummingbirds divebombed UW graduate student Elyse Denkers when she was stomping down reed canary grass.
And beavers living in a nearby beaver lodge are constantly hankering for the young willow plantings. They’re kept at bay by special fences.
The Restoration Ecology Network was started about 15 years ago by late UW-Tacoma Chancellor Debra Friedman, who worked for UW-Seattle at the time.
The network allows students at all three UW campuses to get their hands dirty on practical projects benefiting the region’s natural areas, and help students get real-world experience in restoration.
It’s one of more than 100 wild areas around the region that have been restored, or are being restored, with the UW’s help.
Students who earn a degree in restoration ecology, and who work on the network projects, often go to work for a consultant, a city, state or county, the Department of Natural Resources — “anywhere land management happens,” Ewing said.
And they’ve gotten experience in planning a restoration project, picking out the right plants and monitoring an area as it is restored.
“Every one of our graduates gets a job,” he said.
Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or firstname.lastname@example.org On Twitter @katherinelong