Celebrating Yesler Swamp

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On Sunday, dozens of neighbors and volunteers brought crockpots full of baked beans, bowls of potato salad, trays of summer fruits and vegetables and loaves of bread to share. Cheering along with the Cajun band Folichon, they were celebrating the completion of the first phase of the Yesler Swamp boardwalk. Yesler 8

The swamp, a wooded wetland, is a natural treasure that has suffered neglect and misuse for years. It is now being restored through the efforts of an inspired group of dedicated workers, the Friends of Yesler Swamp.

They, along with their partners, have contributed thousands of volunteer hours – more than 3,000 in 2014 alone – to remove invasive species, plant native trees and shrubs and construct a handicapped accessible trail with viewing platforms that is now open to the public.

The six-acre swampland at the outflow of Yesler Creek has a fascinating history. It is an arm of Lake Washington, carved out by receding glaciers. Millenniums later it often served as a Duwamish campground. In historic times, it became a holding area for logs bound for Henry Yesler’s sawmill on Elliott Bay.

The swamp thus takes the name Yesler for one of the area’s first businessmen and later, the mayor of Seattle. At one time the nearby area would be platted for the Town of Yesler and then many years later would be purchased by the University of Washington and partly used for student housing.

The area was much abused in these more recent years. Beginning in 1933, people began dumping trash in the marshlands along Union Bay. The city used it as a garbage dump and landfill. Trash was burned on the fill until 1954. Smoke filled the area and the fired burned, filling the air with acrid fumes. It was as though the fires of hell had established a beachhead on land beneath the state’s proud university.

Yesler 6Fortunately, citizen protests eventually forced closure of the landfill. The closure was completed by 1971, just in time for the state Legislature to pass the Shoreline Management Act.  It was then that some visionaries – university professors, environmentalist and community leaders – recognized that the area should be preserved for teaching, for wildlife habitat and for recreation.

A plan for Yesler Swamp was drawn up by UW students of Plant Ecology in 2004 and restoration of native species began under a team from the University of Washington Restoration Ecology Network.

At Sunday’s ribbon-cutting, volunteers told me how they were first introduced to the wonders of the swamp. Dr. Kern Ewing, they said, led them on a tour through the area, just east of the Union Bay Natural Area, and introduced them to the part known as the “east basin.” They followed Dr. Ewing through the swamp, slogging through brush and mud; one woman’s foot got hopelessly stuck and she had to be helped out.

Visitors to the site were alerted to a sanctuary of willows, red cedar, birds and water. Beavers were living in a home of sticks and mud by the water’s edge and great blue heron waded in the shallows.

That visit led to the formation of Friends of Yesler Swamp and a heroic effort to preserve a natural treasure, a natural preseve in the midst of the bustling urban landscape.

Today the trail, now open to the public, reaches out to the lagoon. It connects to the extensive Seattle trail system and, once the SR 520 project is complete, it will connect with trails into the Arboretum. Visitors to the area can see 104 different species of birds, an active beaver lodge and many animal species, including river otter, muskrat and coyote. Invasive plants are being removed, many replaced by native trees and shrubs.

Over 350 feet of the trail has been constructed to date, along with two viewing platforms and materials for another 355 feet have been purchased.

There have been costs as well as volunteer efforts involved. The Friends group has been organized as a non-profit since 2010 and a board oversees the work. There are many partners, including the University of Washington Botanic Gardens, the Seattle Parks Foundation, the UW Restoration Ecology Network and the Green Seattle Partnership. The city of Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods has contributed $147,000 in grants. There are other grants from the King Conservation District, Pendleton and Elizabeth Miller Foundation and the Stim Bullitt Parks Excellence Fund. At one point when the task seemed insurmountable, nearby neighbors simply contributed $200 per family, a fund that eventually totaled $40,000. Yesler Swamp 3

The community dedication was obvious on Sunday when much of Seattle was elsewhere, either at the football stadium or somewhere watching the Seahawks-Broncos game. It’s true that visitors occasionally looked for the score on their phones. But, for the most part, they were out in the late summer sunshine celebrating the great work of restoring a rare natural resource.