On Earth Day, Seattle's Carkeek Park is a place to love through good times and bad.

Share story

Each Earth Day now for 32 years, Nancy Malmgren has joined Carkeek Park in its spring finery, turning out to celebrate and nurture a place that has captured her heart since she rode horses there as a girl.

Now 82, she looks back at a long life loving this place as Earth Day once more comes around. “I feel very strongly that if you root yourself in a place, good things can happen,” she said. But not lately: City budget cuts at the North Seattle park bring tears to her eyes.

The park’s $776,000 environmental learning center, opened in 2003 amid much fanfare as the city’s first green building to achieve a national gold standard, was shuttered in January 2011 because of budget cuts. It’s no longer open to visitors, and available only by rental. The park also lost its only on-campus naturalist.

“It makes me pretty cranky,” said Malmgren, who helped raise the money to build the center — money spent with the promise of providing environmental education. All the tools are still there to do that at the park, she points out: the center, a demonstration garden, even a children’s play area with what must be the city’s only 15-foot-long salmon slide.

And there are real salmon, too. After hard work — much of it by volunteers — in the fall and winter of 2011, coho, chum and even a chinook braved urban Pipers Creek, which winds through the park to Puget Sound. The park is also beloved by the local community, with kids, families, beach walkers and picnickers using it in all weather, any day of the week. It’s a park that shows the loving attention of many years’ investment by volunteers, including many special touches of artwork. Malmgren has midwifed much of the magic.

“She is the soul of the park,” said Dewey Potter, spokeswoman for the Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation. “She is just tireless, her love for the park and her strong feelings about the salmon, she is just a rock. We have thousands of volunteers without whom we could not do what we do. But there is that one in a million, and Nancy is that.”

The cuts at Carkeek are just part of the carnage in the city’s parks budget, but they are sharply felt, hitting the public right where people interact with their parks, in beloved programs they have come to count on. The city over the past two years has cut $389,000 from the environmental learning centers at Camp Long, Discovery Park and Carkeek, and reduced staff hours at the centers nearly in half. Carkeek — the smallest of the three — took the worst of the cuts, Potter said, in an effort to consolidate programming at the other two.

A partial solution to Carkeek’s woes is under discussion. Seattle Audubon emerged as the winning bidder in a request for proposals by the city to run environmental-education programs at Carkeek, at an administration building.

“We are excited and hopeful about the possibility,” said Shawn Cantrell, executive director of Seattle Audubon. “But there are many things still to work out.”

Both the Seattle City Council and the nonprofit’s board have yet to get into the details of how, or even if, such an arrangement could work.

But it’s not unprecedented. On Saturday, the National Audubon Society celebrated its fourth year of running environmental-education programs at the environmental learning center at Seward Park. The city provides no funds for the programs or staff; it still owns the building.

“It’s a partnership that can really work,” said Gail Gatton, director of the center, which has had 58,000 visitors over those four years. From a talking tree (a costumed naturalist) for little kids, to bird and bat walks and talks, the center offers a wide range of education opportunities for the public.

Meanwhile, the future of what started with such great hope at Carkeek is unclear. But Malmgren is soldiering on, once more leading the way for the park’s 32nd annual Earth Day activities, which were Saturday. They included storm-drain stenciling, cleaning up around the park and talking about conservation and what it means — and takes — to care for a place.

On a recent visit to the park, she walked by a wheel of wisdom crafted in the sidewalk, an art piece in the children’s play area. Inscribed around gamboling salmon, raccoons, bears and other animals depicted in the artwork were these words: “Respect. Play. Enjoy. Responsibility. Imagine. Honor. Protect.”

Good words to live by, Malmgren has found at this park, and not only on Earth Day.

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com.