Seattle’s newest forest is a lush haven for birds after years of restoration work. But money for the fence that has protected the site is running out, raising fears for the future of the fragile area.
Grow it, and they will come.
Just five years ago, this place was a rubble of concrete and asphalt, all that remained from a former military housing development. Today, it’s a haven for birds, flocking to the newest forest in Seattle’s largest park.
The Capehart restoration site at Discovery Park shows how quickly birds and other animals will flourish when land is turned back to nature.
David Hutchinson, a volunteer steward at the site, five years ago began a citizen science survey of birds there, counting species he saw on one day, once a month. Back in March 2012, he counted five. Earlier this month, he logged the highest number of species since he started counting, at 27, including 19 breeding pairs.
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And what a glorious tally it is: Cooper’s hawks, warbling vireo, Bewick’s wren, spotted towhee, American goldfinch, flycatchers, three types of swallows, two varieties of chickadees, cedar waxwings, orange-crowned warbler, flickers and more.
On a recent morning swallows dipped and swooped, heralding the return of the sun as the morning cloud layer burned off. Bumblebees warmed and wakened on white yarrow dotting meadows of long, swaying grasses. Birds sang, buzzed and chirped. Dragonflies hawked and a vole scurried through thick cover.
A small but mighty Anna’s hummingbird defended its tiny treetop nation of one. A flicker belted out its one-note “PHEW!” and a spotted towhee — drawn to the thickets and understory now flourishing here — held forth with a call like a plucked banjo.
Fir trees stretched 2 feet of new growth and stood more than head high. Even madrona trees were beginning to sprout on their own as volunteers, alongside alders, cottonwood and willows also starting to take root all on their own.
The question is, what now.
With the rubble gone and recycled, and the trees taking root, this young forest and its birds now face a fork in the road. The restoration site has been protected behind 1,390 feet of fence since 2011. But money to pay for the fence, rented at a cost of $4,570 per year to keep out off-leash dogs and wayward hikers, runs out in December.
That has Hutchinson worried: this is not a typical restoration site. It’s very exposed, and right in the middle of one of the region’s most heavily used destination parks. In these new green groves and meadows, where nature is just getting started, Hutchinson is fighting for some kind of continued protection.
“I’m stubborn, I’m annoying,” Hutchinson said. “Almost everyone I speak to says the land belongs to the public and they should be able to have it as soon as possible,” Hutchinson said. “But I think we need more time for the woodlands to grow in, and the wild lands to return.”
The new forest at Discovery is a work of many hands. It is just one of many restoration sites all over the region stewarded by the Green Seattle Partnership, a project of Forterra, a nonprofit conservation group. With volunteers and professional staff in municipalities, parks and nonprofits, the partnership is nurturing urban forests all over the region, from Seattle to Tukwila. From ripping out invasive ivy to planting native plants, shrubs and trees, the goal is to nurture urban forests for city dwellers of every species.
Forest steward volunteers like Hutchinson are the secret ingredient of regional parks like Discovery that need the investment of deep connection to place, said Andy Sheffer, construction manager for Seattle Parks and Recreation. Owner of the city’s venerable Flora and Fauna Books, which he now runs out of his home, Hutchinson said he’s been deeply invested in the park since 1977, when he first worked there on the maintenance crew.
The tensions over the fence are many, Sheffer acknowledged, from denying access, to equitable expenditure of public funds, and aesthetics.
Central to the consideration, too, is the mission of parks to provide living green space amid a rising tide of pavement in a rapidly densifying city.
“We have to remember what our green objective is here,” Sheffer said. “We are trying to create a refuge in the urban environment. It’s critical to have these spaces to balance it all.”
Continuing to protect the site could, if grant money became available and the public was amenable, allow it to be a pilot project in best-management practices for restoration projects, Sheffer said, with monitoring to gauge success. That could add learning to the yield from the site.
Another alternative is a trail built through the site, with the forest protected by a permanent fence. Sheffer estimated the cost of a trail at $20,000 to $35,000 depending on volunteer labor. A more attractive permanent fence along the trail, he estimated, would cost about $18,000. Or, the rental fence could simply remain at about $5,000 a year.
Hutchinson’s rooting for the forest. He put up his binoculars to watch a spotted towhee, a species he’s recorded at the site in just the last few years as the understory has flourished. “It’s been wonderful to watch nature recover.”