A Response to Briefing Paper, Natural Areas Greenbelt Supplemental Use Guidelines

(Guest post from John Barber, a former Park Board member)

To the Board:

I am writing as Chair of the Leschi Parks and Greenspace Committee, and I am also a former Park Board member (6 Years).  I also wrote earlier this month before the Briefing Paper was issued.

I was on the Park Board when the classification for “natural areas” was considered and approved by the Board.  The concept was to protect the natural areas, keep them intact, except for the possibility for using some space for community use, such as a playground.  We had no idea that in a short six years, the Department would come back to what we thought were protected natural areas and propose the type of active recreational uses proposed in this briefing.

The Briefing Paper is broadly misdirected and does not prove its case about there being a need or demand for the new recreations, and it lacks an examination of alternative locations for the uses specified to be placed the natural area parklands.  It ignores the commitment of the Board and City Council that a mountain biking park pilot and evaluation period will be completed.  Any changes to the Parks’ policy would be delayed until the evaluation period is completed.  Much of the information needed to put the topic into perspective is missing.  It makes no reference to the Green Seattle Initiative, which is the major program in the midst of a 20-year project to restore these lands.

The Common Vision

  1. Restore the greenbelts and natural areas to healthy nature – lush native plants and habitat for wildlife.
  2. Provide an experience of nature to the often over-stressed urban residents.  Natural areas address the research of the public health community — attractive places to walk and to  enjoy the outdoors, free of the artificial environment and the noise and distractions that characterize most of our lives.  Slow speed enjoyment of nature —   health of nature, health of people.
Orchard Street Ravine, a restored Natural Area

Missing background information

The briefing paper is virtually devoid of any of the background information that would support  an adequate consideration of the recreational uses that are proposed.

History:  The Park Department stopped maintaining natural areas around 1940.  Trails and stairs built in the early 1900s disappeared.  By 1990, neighbors became increasingly alarmed about invasive plants that were not just taking over, but snuffing out trees and shrubs.

The ivy-out campaigns began through volunteer action.  In the late 1990s, neighborhood volunteers initiated vegetation management planning by applying for Department of Neighborhood matching grants, hiring landscape architects, and collaboratively developing plans by drawing in neighbors and Park staff to participate in the process.

Volunteer stewardship:  Many budding forest stewards took an excellent 10-week (60 hours of class work) Native Plant Steward educational program that was sponsored by the University of Washington and the Native Plant Society.  Upon graduation, they committed to perform at least 100 hours of volunteer work.  72 of the Native Plant Stewards devoted themselves to restoring Seattle’s natural areas and most of them are continuing this work as Urban Forest Stewards under the Green Seattle Partnership.  Many of the other Urban Forest Stewards are self-taught or pursued other courses of learning.  There are a few “one-day wonders” happening lately.  The motivation of nearly all urban forest stewards is to work using the best knowledge and training available.  The volunteers who joined the GSP work parties are inclusive of all ages.

Maintenance commitment of DPR:  The Parks Department, to this day, spends less by far for maintenance of natural areas than any other element of the parks system ($ 1,473 per acre annually), compared to the most expensive, downtown parks ( $ 114,388 per acre).  (Page 107, Parks Legacy Plan).  Yet, the public puts the maintenance of natural areas third (after cleaning restrooms and picking up litter in parks) in importance of maintenance services, ahead of six other maintenance categories.  (Page 54 of Parks Legacy Plan).

Volunteer action:  The Green Seattle Partnership program provides more volunteers than any other park function, more volunteers even than the community centers, although the community center volunteers put in more volunteer hours (they have indoor more comfortable working conditions and mainly not so strenuous work).  In 2012, almost 18,000 volunteers reported to GSP work parties, far more volunteers than athletic programs, parks, or off-leash areas.

The public’s use of natural areas:  Natural areas are the third most frequently visited parkland locations, according to a random telephone survey that is included in the 2014 Parks Legacy Plan. 7% of Seattle residents report visiting natural areas on a daily basis (over 40,000 people).  29% visit at least weekly (over 180,000 people) —  far more than visit community centers, athletic fields, golf courses, off-leash areas, or tennis courts.

Supply of natural areas, compared to other cities:  Seattle parks has stated recently that there are about 2500 acres of natural areas (both categorized and not) in the system.  In 2014 the Trust for Public Lands printed statistics comparing the 200 largest US cities.  Seattle ranks 153rd out of 200 in terms of acreage in natural areas — that’s 47 from the bottom.  Not good for a city that loves nature and prides itself in environmental leadership and not suggestive of the notion that there is space to burn for other activities.

What the focus group participants and mini-summit panelists said (or didn’t say):  The uses proposed in the Briefing Paper were not discussed in our focus groups or on the panel, except for the issue of mountain biking facilities in which there was some back-and-forth on the “do it”, don’t do it” level.

Mountain bike use?  The proposal of “bicycle skills courses” is out-of-place, because of the commitment made with the pilot project at Cheasty to hold any changes in bike policy until after a 15-month period to evaluate the operations, uses, and impacts of the Cheasty mountain bike project.

Safety:  The safety issues associated with the risky sports are not addressed. For instance, accidents in the woods, late in the day, may not have observers and lead to the delayed attention of needed medical care.

Recreation:  The Briefing Paper did not recognize that habitat restoration work is an important form of healthy recreation.  Also, walking and the study of nature are two very important recreations that are underplayed by the Briefing Paper.

Parking:  There is no discussion of the taking of natural area land for parking for added features that could be regional in use.

Track record of the Department’s environmental reviews:  The Briefing Paper calls for site analysis by Department planning staff.  But, are internal environmental reviews as well as use of the “Project Impact Evaluation Checklist” adequate to assure a fair adherence to environmental regulations?  Unfortunately, recent experience at Frink Park gives me little confidence that the natural environment will be protected.  An environmental review was made for a project completed in late 2014 after the project was already completed.  Considerable bending of the conditions was used in justifying the project.

Frink Park, 2014

Gap map?   There is no “gap map” that shows the location of natural areas with circles indicating easy walking distances.  A gap map shows the areas where city residents cannot easily access natural areas.

Other future needs?  The scant statistic in the Briefing Paper is that population will increase by 120,000 people in the next 20s, as if that means we should jam new recreations into the natural areas.  But, the other possibility is that new residents will need exposure to nature even more, and perhaps we should simply provide nature in the best way possible.

Attachment 1.  Other jurisdictions?  Most of those cited have more abundant natural space per resident than Seattle, and Seattle benefits from accessibility to the large parks of the King County system.

Recommend procedures?   Most natural areas are strongly connected and largely used by the surrounding neighborhood.  An open process, reflecting a proposal to change the vegetation management plan, should be the approach undertaken.  If Parks thinks that a new use should be added, Parks should encourage neighborhood groups to set up meetings, hire consultants to help the process, to determine whether the new use is locally needed and appropriate.  The process should include a revision of the vegetation management plans.

Locating the natural areas:  A more readable map and a set of location criteria/addresses should be provided, so that Commissioners can visit natural areas.

Appropriate uses

Clearly, walking, hiking, observing and learning about nature, and restoring nature are recreations that are important to be accessible by nearly 100% of the population.  The disabled person community is served by the fact that natural areas are subject to providing access required by the federal Aid to the Disabled Act.  It is not always possible to accommodate the disabled on the trails because of steep grades, but observation of nature from the boundaries can be provided.  The essential group of users to serve are those who live close walking distance or who can access the natural area by short bus rides, because most natural areas are the size of neighborhood parks, and walking is the recreation broadly recommended by the public health community.

Inappropriate uses

It is unfortunate to see the specific recreations proposed, because they are all inappropriate on one level or another.  None of them was meaningfully considered or even described in the focus groups or panel discussion.  I do not recall any mention of rope/challenge courses or of orienteering.

Orienteering is inappropriate because it represents trampling the habitat.  Several people at the focus groups pointed out that trampling should be prohibited.  The work the volunteers do involves restoring native vegetation in soil conditions that were damaged by urban abuse.  It is therefore difficult for volunteers to maintain new plants, and it takes much follow-up effort, including watering during the drought periods of the following three years.

“Bicycle skill courses” spoil the enjoyment of the visitors who come to experience nature.  The character of mountain biking pounding the dirt is a type of urban abuse:  the surface of the ground is scarred and denuded of any chance of vegetation, soil is washed away by erosion, and the structures for skill training are intrusive and generally ugly.  There are inevitable conflicts between the faster moving bicyclists and the pedestrians, and if one is out to observe nature on foot, bicycling is a distraction that is hard to avoid.  The bicyclists experience nature only as a blur, because their principle attention is on operating the bike.  The current trails in natural areas are unsuitable for mountain biking, as no trails meeting the mountain biking trail standards exist currently.  The standard gravel trails should not be used by bicyclists due to poor braking qualities and tendency to cause sliding in slope conditions.

Duthie Hill Bike Park – March, 2014

“Challenge” and “rope” courses are super-sized play structures, visually intrusive.  They require large mechanized equipment and access roads to bring in the heavy construction machinery to scrape the ground surface and erect 30 to 50 foot high poles.  Due to safety and liability issues, these facilities are usually fenced in and a ticket station is erected to collect payment and oversee the signing of waiver of liability.  Use of the rope courses at Camp Long is only allowed with supervision of an adult who has completed a training class.  In natural areas,  the structures are artificial man-made intrusions into nature, contrary to the main concept of natural areas:  providing urban residents an escape from the built environment.  The Go-Ape proposal for Lincoln Park was soundly rejected by the West Seattle community only a few years ago.

There are better locations for the challenge, rope, and bicycle skills facilities, such as the often empty Interbay athletic facility and the Genesee sports fields which are next to a community center and several other spaces with ample land, comfort stations, and parking.  Camp Long may be the best place to concentrate the challenge and rope courses, as there are already some of those features in place and control would be centralized.

Overall, the Department lacks effective enforcement of official rules.  When bicycles go off-trail, when visitors misuse rope courses, and when orienteers veer into wetlands, much damage can result.  It is often up to volunteers to do the clean-up, but will volunteers continue if nature itself is misused by these new activities?  We stewards have repeatedly requested programs to discourage off-trail uses – even better signs would help, but it has been of no avail.

Questions not posed in the Briefing Paper:

If so many people frequently visit the natural areas and so many people volunteer for work parties, is there an “access problem” or a problem of under-use?

Is there a cause to pack natural areas with more recreation, when natural areas already fill a well-documented need (public health studies)?  And, when there is not a huge supply of natural areas here, compared to similar US cities?

The question we should really be discussing is, “How can we better preserve and protect our natural areas?”

How can we make the experience of nature even better for current and future urban residents?

How can we better encourage people to walk to and through natural areas?

Why make a major change in natural area policy mid-way through a 20-year habitat restoration effort that is successful only through the good faith of thousands of volunteers?

Who at Parks or on the Board has studied the City Council resolutions that pertain to natural areas?  (You will receive a letter from another party discussing the legal aspects of the proposed policy.)

Summary statement:   We citizens expect to be served by a Department that understands our urban needs – parks and natural areas, not just recreation.  The primary focus of the Department’s management levels is out-of-balance: athletics, community center programs, and organized activities dominate almost overwhelmingly.  There is a notable lack of attention in the upper levels to the natural areas that the broad public loves so much.

The Briefing Paper is a distorted document which should be tabled forthrightly.  Let’s put our efforts in natural areas towards successful completion of the Green Seattle Initiative along with a long-term maintenance strategy.  In my view, the neighborhood-initiated vegetation plans have been the most effective plans;  they have elicited the best community participation and support.  If it becomes apparent that changes to natural areas are advisable, the process should be to go back to the vegetation management plans and undertake community participation in revising the plans.

John Barber
Chair, Leschi Parks and Greenspace Committee
Seattle, WA

Copies:  Superintendent, City Council, Cross-cut

If you would like to offer feedback to John, please contact him via email.

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