SEATAC — On a recent rainy Sunday, Noemie Maxwell sat on her haunches amid the English ivy that blanketed the forest floor in North SeaTac Park, cutting the vines at the base of a madrone tree. She sought to prevent the vines from crawling up the trunk, depriving the coastal evergreen of air and sunlight.

Draped in ivy, a nearby tree looked like it was wearing a heavy winter coat.

“It’s like watching a cathedral collapse,” Maxwell said, the sound of airplanes drowning out her voice. “People flying overhead have no idea the forest is dying.”

Restoration of the 165-acre park, about 5 miles north of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, has captured the attention of a group of volunteers. On the last Sunday of every month, they gather to remove invasive plants, especially ivy and blackberry vines, and plant other native species on the forest floor.  

The restoration project — funded by the Port of Seattle and organized by land conservation nonprofit Forterra — is part of a larger, million-dollar effort to protect the urban-forest canopy.

Urban forests are especially important in airport communities, said Maxwell, of Burien, citing a recent University of Washington Study that found aircraft pollution affected the air quality of communities under flight paths. SeaTac ranked 14 for 24-hour particle pollution out of 216 municipal areas across the United States, according to an American Lung Association State of the Air report. Recent studies have shown trees help remove ultra fine particle pollutants, while decreasing stress and depression and improve water quality.

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Started in 2016 by the Port of Seattle — a municipal corporation that manages Sea-Tac and other facilities — the Airport Community Ecology Fund provides $1 million in funding to programs and projects that improve the environment in SeaTac, Burien and Des Moines. Nearly half of the funding, $450,000, went to Forterra to establish a four-year conservation program in partnership with the three cities beginning in 2018, while $550,000 funded a matching-grants program for environmental projects by South King County organizations.

The funding helped Forterra expand its Green City Partnerships program, which began in Seattle in 2005 and has since spread to 13 other Western Washington cities — Tacoma, Snoqualmie, Kent, Redmond, Kirkland, Everett, Puyallup, Tukwila, Issaquah, Shoreline, SeaTac, Des Moines and Burien — as well as Snohomish County. The program relies on volunteers, government agencies, nonprofits and businesses to protect urban forests and green spaces. 

Forterra started Green City Partnership to ensure access to green spaces in a region that was projected to experience rapid growth. At the time, Seattle had produced a survey that showed invasive plants were threatening to decimate the urban-forest canopy, said Joanna Nelson de Flores, Forterra’s restoration and stewardship managing director.

“It was also an indication of what was happening across the Puget Sound area when it comes to invasive plants,” Nelson de Flores said. 

Forterra partnered with the city of Seattle to create a citywide plan to track the health of urban forests and to collaborate on restoration. The nonprofit began replicating that model in other cities throughout the region, and it now covers about 13 million acres in the Puget Sound area. 

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In 2019, Forterra created a 20-year plan in partnership with the city of SeaTac to enhance and maintain the urban-forest canopy. The plans in Burien, SeaTac and Des Moines include restoration in parks, such as in North SeaTac Park, educational tree walks and the distribution of yard trees to homeowners.   

The 2019 report on SeaTac urban forests estimated that restoration in the city over the next 20 years would cost $6 million. At the heart of the program and providing millions of dollars in savings, volunteer stewards would be responsible for leading other volunteers in removing invasive species and planting trees. 

“One of the goals of these partnerships is to have people feel like they belong in the parks,” said Ali Lakehart, Forterra’s Green Cities program manager. The preservation of urban forests is even more important during the COVID-19 pandemic as they serve as meeting places, Lakehart said. 

Maxwell is being trained by Forterra to become a forest steward at North SeaTac Park. She will join another steward, South King County resident Derek Beauchemin, to lead volunteer groups to remove invasive weeds. Beauchemin works professionally as a restoration ecologist, but on the last Sunday of the month he heads to the park with his two young children, Thaddeus and Vivienne, to direct volunteers on how to best remove the invasive species. 

The group that meets monthly grew organically out of a desire to improve the area, and has joined forces with Forterra’s efforts. Maxwell began removing the ivy and blackberries on her own last summer, after being alarmed by the overgrowth during walks in the park on her way to work at the Burien Library. It prompted her to ask her neighbors on the Nextdoor app why the forest was falling down.

Noemie Maxwell, a volunteer, stands in front of a tree covered by ivy in a park in SeaTac. Maxwell says her group has been advised to not try to remove ivy from the tree because the tree could possibly fall on them. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)
Noemie Maxwell, a volunteer, stands in front of a tree covered by ivy in a park in SeaTac. Maxwell says her group has been advised to not try to remove ivy from the tree because the tree could possibly fall on them. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)
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The post spawned a grassroots group of about 45 people who wanted to help protect the urban forest. Over the past few months, Maxwell has come to the park a few times a month. Sometimes she even clips away at the ivy as she’s waiting for the bus. 

Brian Hill, a project manager for Wave Broadband, is another volunteer who joined the group after regularly visiting the park with his daughter, Nora. Since the summer, Hill estimates that he’s helped about a dozen trees by clipping blackberry vines and using a pitchfork to dig up the invaders by the roots. 

A volunteer-model of park restoration helps “develop a sense of place for community members who live around the airport,” said Andy Gregory, a Port of Seattle spokesperson. “This really creates an opportunity for shared learning and shared stewardship.”

Invasive weeds grow so rapidly in urban forests that a steady stream of volunteers is needed to remove them. Young people in community organizations will soon be paid $15 an hour to become stewards of the land, which Gregory says prepares them for careers in green-collar jobs such as forest ecology and landscaping. 

On Feb. 9, the Port announced a new round of community groups that will receive $218,000 through its South King County Environmental Grants Program. The 14 selected organizations will receive up to $20,000 to improve the urban-forest canopy for one year. The Bhutanese Community Resource Center, one of the grant recipients, will use the money to create a park and plant trees.

Still, in Maxwell’s eyes, the Port could do more to ensure that the urban forests below flight paths are kept healthy. It’s an especially critical time to expand urban forests, she said, since the metropolitan planning organization Puget Sound Regional Council estimated in a 2019 study that demand for regional flights may more than double by 2050.  

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Brian Hill (right) volunteers to remove invasive species with his daughter Nora (left) every month. (Noemie Maxwell)
Brian Hill (right) volunteers to remove invasive species with his daughter Nora (left) every month. (Noemie Maxwell)

In the meantime, 9-year-old Nora Hill is excited about the improvement that she’s seen in North SeaTac Park since she and her dad began volunteering over the summer.

“I didn’t even know this hill existed, but then they cleared it all and now there’s so much space,” Nora said. She views her work as leaving a legacy for the next generation to enjoy. 

“It’s like a portal to an enchanted land, but we needed to clear it before we could hang out in it,” she said.