Straight Talk from the Hot Seat

Last night, the Seattle Nature Alliance was invited to a PRO vs CON discussion for the Southeast Seattle District Council. Denise represented the CON side, and Susan Golub from the Park Policy Unit presented the PRO side. Each side presented their case for 5 minutes, and then responded to audience questions.

The topic: Parks’ policy revision for Seattle Park Natural Areas.

Below is Denise’s Presentation.

I’m Denise Dahn, co-director of the Seattle Nature Alliance, and this is Mark Ahlness, and Rebecca Watson the other co-directors of the Alliance.

I’m here to explain our position on the proposed policy change for natural areas.

Less than 2% of Seattle remains as natural area, and we have an exploding population of citizens that will need that nature for health and happiness. We share this remnant nature with urban wildlife that depend on our goodwill to preserve the habitat they need to survive.

I will be explaining the three main points of our position. A good policy for Seattle Park Natural Areas must be:

  1. Equitable (meaning it works for people)
  2. Sustainable (meaning it works for the environment)
  3. Wise (meaning it works for society, community, and for the future).

I will discuss how the Parks policy is none of these things, and that is why we oppose it.

Let’s start with Equity.

An equitable policy works for all people, treating everyone equally, favoring none.

Traditionally, park natural areas have been reserved for passive use. Passive uses are low-impact, universally available to virtually everyone, and compatible with other uses. Passive uses do not require their own specially allotted spaces, do not charge fees, and do not mar the landscape with built structures. Passive use is inclusive of everyone.

But, now, Parks wants to replace the passive-use concept with active, or specialized-use.

This would be unfair to most people and devastating to nature.

This policy invites citizen groups to petition for specialized-use privileges. It could be for a special mountain bike area, a fee-for-entry zipline or challenge course, a tree-surfing installation, or a paintball battlefield. It could be anything, and if the group petitioning has enough power and sponsorship – it will be.

This favors organized groups with the time, energy and resources to petition for access. It might be sport groups, or groups that receive support from corporations with a financial interest, or other special-interest groups. Who will lose out? Everyone else, especially those with no time or energy to spare. Most people would be in danger of losing their current access to nature because others were able to petition for it, and because they themselves were in no position to respond.

And because specialized-uses are usually not compatible with other uses —they require their own allotted spaces. Everyone else would be squeezed out. Seattle parkland has already been 85% designed or developed for active uses. Less than 15% remains as natural area (not counting underwater areas.) This should remain reserved for all people as passive-use, not carved up for special interests.

Point number 2 – Sustainability

Parks tells us it would only allow low-impact uses. But, almost anything can be described as low-impact, it is entirely subjective. After all, a bike only makes a two-inch wide track, does that mean it is has a small footprint? A zipline uses a system of bolts driven into trees, does that mean it has no footprint at all? Are these to be considered low-impact? If past history is our guide, yes they will be.

The Parks plan ignores the much more important question: What is the cumulative effect of all the uses in any one natural area? Too many low-impact uses can be even worse that a single high-impact one. And, what is the overall effect on our city-wide urban forest? These questions should be the foundation of a good natural area plan—it is how planning should be done. Not piecemeal, but comprehensively across the whole system.

The fact is, our natural areas are small, already fragmented, already stressed from urbanization and invasive species. This stress is only going to increase as we grow as a city, and as climate change kicks in. Additionally, zoning changes will undoubtedly affect the overall quality of the urban forest, as backyards are filled in and trees are cut down to make way for denser neighborhoods. Wildlife is going to be scrambling to find habitat.

Changing from a passive-use to a multi-use system will mean each natural area will have to accommodate much higher impact. Trails systems will be denser, and there will be more supporting amenities like built structures, parking, lighting, restrooms, etc. All of this adds up and has an effect on the natural areas to support wildlife.

One of the most mystifying things about Park’s policy is its claim to make Wildlife Sanctuaries exempt. This is almost unbelievably misleading. In fact, there is only one Wildlife Sanctuary on dry land: Kiwanis Ravine, a scant nine acres. The bar to qualify as a Wildlife Sanctuary is so high, that it is unlikely there will be more of them.

With multi-use, natural areas will become less and less able to sustain plant and animal life. Bit by bit, the impacts of multi-uses will chip away at them until they no longer resemble anything natural.

One of the saddest things to me is that future generations won’t even know what they missed.

That brings me to our final point: How Wise is Park’s proposal?

Any guesses?

The policy does not work for people. The policy does not work for the environment. But how does it work for the greater good of society or for community?

I think the last year or so make this plain. This is a most unwise policy for our city.

Our park natural areas need a better system of planning than one dependent on an unending series of petitions, social media battles, one-side-against-the-other, neighbors versus specialized-user groups, citizens against commercialized recreation interests. As a society, this is a poor use of our time and energy.

It is unfortunate that the Cheasty project—although I believe it was conceived with good intentions—gave rise to one of the worst ideas yet: the concept of providing special access privileges in return for eco-restoration services. In effect, this transforms volunteerism into a system of quid-pro-quo, where the strong, well-organized, or powerful reap the benefits, and the rest of society gets shoved to the side.

In conclusion, this policy revision does not work on any level. It is not equitable because it does away with the equalizing concept of passive use. It is not sustainable because it will inevitably result in the over-use, mis-use, and degradation of natural areas. It is not wise because it creates disharmony within communities.

The Seattle Nature Alliance opposes this policy and we hope you will, too.

Thank you.

What do you think? Read the policy changes from Parks:

Here is an excerpt of 1993 resolution – this is what Parks is changing (“supplemented” in Parks terminology)

Here is the 1993 resolution in entirety

Here is Parks first version of their policy change (revision to the 1993 resolution above)

And here is their newest version (after 7/20/15) and presented at the meeting last night

Does their newest version make you feel any differently one way or the other?

Let us know!

4 thoughts on “Straight Talk from the Hot Seat

  1. After careful comparison, I would say the “revision” is more pro-development and active recreation than the original.

    I would like to see all Natural Areas and Greenspaces declared Wildlife Sanctuaries. Parks has said they will be exempt from development. Problem is, there’s only one, on land (9 acres), and there will be no more, given the current Parks definition of Wildlife Sanctuaries. Change the definition, problem solved. Those Natural Areas and Greenspaces ARE Wildlife Sanctuaries.

  2. I agree. This seems like a great solution. Clearly identify natural areas which are off limits to recreational development. It would be nice if Parks could adopt a positive vision for using surplus space for future recreational and park development instead of encroaching on the little greenspace we left in Seattle. This seems like a win – win – more area for active use with the prospect of expanding park space for everyone.

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