May 27, 2014
UW students, neighbors join forces down on the Union Bay ‘bayou’
By summer it will be easier to walk through one of Seattle’s only swamps with its beaver lodge, a lagoon with turtles the size of dinner plates and a hundred different kinds of song birds.
Work has started on the first phase of a 1,200-foot boardwalk trail in Yesler Swamp, a six-acre area on the shore of Union Bay just east of the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Horticulture.
Swamps are wetlands with trees and in the Seattle area the tree species would have included giants like Sitka spruce and western red cedar. Seattle’s original swamps have all pretty been much logged, drained or filled, according to Kern Ewing, a UW professor of environmental and forest sciences.
The largest swamps in the city today are Yesler Swamp and those found on Foster and Marsh islands, all ringing Union Bay near UW. In spite of being the site of an 1880s-era saw mill and then cultivated during World War II for Victory Gardens, Yesler Swamp managed to reemerge as a natural area, but one choked with invasive plants.
The boardwalk trail, a project of the neighborhood group Friends of Yesler Swamp, is being installed because studies have shown that people are less likely to create their own multiple pathways – which disturbs wildlife and degrades the ecosystem – if there are clear, designated paths, Ewing said. The boardwalk trail will also make it easier to do additional restoration.
It’s been a little more than a decade since the first University of Washington undergraduates started attacking 10-foot-tall walls of blackberries and fighting other invasives in the swamp so native plants could be brought in.
“Here was this potentially fabulous ecosystem, right on the shore, with huge cotton woods and willows but it was just badly degraded and jam-packed with invasive species,” Ewing said.
The students were enrolled in a yearlong series of restoration ecology courses meant to give them real-world experience in planning and carrying out projects for local parks and agencies, utilities, nonprofits and private firms.
Offered today on all three of the UW’s campuses, the “capstone” experience often serves as a culmination of one’s undergraduate studies, although graduate students are welcome in the class. Capstone projects like this are a key feature of four of the seven undergraduate degrees offered by the UW College of the Environment.
This year two of the 10 groups in the restoration ecology capstone worked in the swamp and will deliver reports in June to their client the Friends of Yesler Swamp.
“Monitoring and maintenance is probably as important as anything, so we have to write up a really good stewardship plan as part of our final report,” said Cameron Newell, a master’s student in environmental and forest sciences who is a member of the class. The students also had to develop a work plan, do site prep, buy plants and put them in the ground and coordinate a work party with volunteers from the Friends of Yesler Swamp group.
“It’s all real-world,” Newell said.
Eventually the boardwalk will connect two existing woodchip-covered paths and form a full, handicapped-accessible loop, according to Carol Arnold, a volunteer with Friends of Yesler Swamp who led the permitting for the boardwalk. The boardwalk, designed by SB&A Landscape Architects, will sit on supports referred to as pin piles, which disturb the environment less than concrete foundations or floats.
Friends of Yesler Swamp, formed in 2009, has conducted numerous work parties at the site, some in conjunction with the students. The group’s goal, according to its website: “By bringing attention to this long-neglected area, we hope to build community support for its ongoing restoration and conservation.”
The group raised money to match an initial $19,000 grant from the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods to get the boardwalk project started. The city of Seattle gave an additional $64,000 since then and the King County Conservation District, Miller Foundation and numerous individuals have also contributed funding. There’s been support and fundraising advice from the Seattle Parks Foundation and UW.
The group is halfway to its goal of $350,000 to $400,000 for the whole project.
In addition to the longtime efforts by UW undergraduates in restoration ecology, two UW Community, Environment, and Planning program students recently joined the Friends of Yesler Swamp board. They’ve organized work parties with, for example, K-12 and community college students where they take the opportunity to talk about the ecosystem services provided by swamps and wetlands.
The area is called Yesler Swamp because pioneering businessman Henry Yesler operated a mill where today’s Center for Urban Horticulture stands. The locks hadn’t been built so the lake was eight feet higher than it is now; Yesler swamp was completely underwater and served as Yesler’s mill pond. When the locks opened in 1916, the land that is today Yesler Swamp emerged.
Spanning land owned by the Department of Natural Resources, Seattle City Parks and the
UW, the swamp is part of the Union Bay Natural Areas managed as part of the UW Botanic Gardens.