A hidden gem: Lawton Park

When considering Magnolia's parks, it is easy to overlook many small, backyard green spaces. Yet these refuges, tiny when compared to mighty Discovery Park, are of immense importance in supporting diversity of nature.

Native songbirds, plant species imperiled throughout our city, as well as rare stretches of springs and creeks are among the elements of nature relying on our neighborhood parks.

So on an ice cold January afternoon - under crystal clear skies tinged with pale winter hues of rose and apricot - I explored Lawton Park guided by volunteer stewards Jean Wheeler and Barbara Downward.

At 7.7 acres of Parks Department land - and perhaps half as much again on steep-ravined slopes that the city Department of Transportation inventories as unused rights of way - Lawton Park is not a large park. Nor is it insignificant.

A large, grassy (and aptly named) "fairway" serves as a community promenade that rivals formal public gardens anywhere in England or North America. The baseball diamond (adjacent to Lawton Elementary School) is a rare gem of a sports field. Set back as it is from traffic, there is perhaps no finer playfield anywhere in Seattle.

However, Lawton Park is essentially a nature reserve - a place where clean, spring-fed water runs year-round. Snowberry, sword fern and Oregon grape are just some of the native ground cover. Native plants and bird species have a foothold against the urban bulwark.

And for exactly all of these reasons, Wheeler and Downward say, this place needs your help in order to remain a unique and wonderful setting.

We began our winter adventure at the base of Lawton Park - on Emerson Street near 25th Avenue West - alongside a nameless spring-flow that decades ago served to float hand-crafted wooden boats down to Puget Sound tideflats at Interbay.

At the entrance to the park, remnants of concrete foundation bear witness to the dream of restoration ecology: we were walking through what had once been a private yard that was acquired with preservation funding in the mid-1990s.

Even though the day was bone-chillingly cold and breezy, people were active in the park. A little boy flew down the pathway in a delighted full gallop; a minute later his dad power-walked by in hot pursuit. Dog-walking humans greeted each other on the fairway promenade. All the while my green-space guides closely examined the varying needs of individual forest parcels with a view toward sustainable ecology.

One element of the concept of sustainability means restored native plant ecology - i.e., growing without the ongoing threat from invasive, non-native plants. Particularly that aggressive tree-killer, English ivy.

It is the gradual, winding trails along unused rights-of-way that make Lawton Park truly something to be cherished. They allow for urban walks that could someday be a wonderland of forest sights and smells. But as Downward pointed out, realization of this potential "will require a paradigm shift" in the minds of park-side neighbors and city bureaucrats alike, as well as "movement in the mindset from development to preservation" of this unique public space.

Park-side neighbors - by as a group devoting the last 10 or 15 feet of their lots to native plants - could effectively double the size of the habitat area. Lawton Park has been studied by urban foresters from Seattle Parks and the University of Washington, and community groups (particularly students from Seattle Pacific University) have worked to implement portions of restoration plans.

Last year more than 400 plants were installed in sensitive habitat zones in both the upper and lower portions of the park. Wheeler and Downward call that a good start, adding that now is the right time to alert the wider community of the stakes involved.

While walking these pathways, we discussed how youth groups and corporate outreach efforts could take on small, manageable projects that would allow them to point with pride at their accomplishments. Wheeler coined a phrase for making restoration activity part of a personal fitness routine: "Join us for green aerobics," she said, adding that restoration could be made an element of cross-training.

At the end of our tour, the issue of respect for our unique green spaces was raised by the sound of illegal firecrackers being set off. Two boys, paying scant attention to their dogs running freely off leash, made use of the woods for their prank. Unfortunately it was at more than their dogs' expense, as it sent small birds scattering as well.

For Wheeler and Downward, this tension is at the heart of their outreach. They need more responsible neighbors to take an active role in the park's stewardship, and even more neighbors still just to walk through the park in order to discourage abusive practices.

But they also know there is a fine line between that and overuse, which can trigger erosion from too much foot traffic. Wild places are always at risk from being loved too much by humans, Wheeler pointed out. She is quick to underscore that this is what Lawton Park is essentially about: habitat for native plants and animals seeking balance with urban threats to coexistence.

For that reason they said they hope that folks will take time to enjoy Lawton Park on a frequent basis, but also take the additional step of contact with Seattle Parks to get involved in some stewardship activities at the park.

Barbara Downward - who last year completed an extensive, college-level program sponsored by the Washington Native Plant Society - is fond of quoting legendary anthropologist Margaret Mead, who said "never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

In many ways, no truer words were ever spoken. Two delightful Magnolia neighbors, sisters in spirit with Margaret Mead, inviting you to experience the rewards of hands-on stewardship.

To learn more about volunteering at Lawton Park (or any park or green space nearby your home), call Adrienne Caver-Hall at 684-7710.

You can write P. Scott Cummins at mageditor@nwlink.com.[[In-content Ad]]