Seward Park vegetation plan creates controversy

A new plan for Seward Park aims to conserve and restore the park's native forest for the coming decades. The Seward Park Vegetation Management Plan (VMP), developed and recently released for public comment by Seattle Parks and Recreation's Urban Forestry Program, sets goals and describes strategies to maintain forest health and reduce forest fragmentation. It also strives to manage and remove invasive plants, regenerate the park's rare Garry oak and madrona tree grove, enhance wildlife habitat and ensure public safety.

The plan recognizes that preservation of the "magnificent forest" for public enjoyment and for wildlife has been the primary purpose of Seward Park since it was first proposed to serve as a cornerstone of Seattle's park system in 1892. In previous decades different agendas have resulted in the park's current mix of native forest, ornamental landscapes, grasslands, buildings, and blankets of invasive ivy, holly and blackberry.

The plan seeks to manage non-native vegetation, consistent with current uses and heritage, while enhancing the diverse native forest. For example, the invasive ivy is slated for removal while the non-native coastal redwood trees will most likely get a pass.

Despite these goals, the plan has generated controversy with forest advocates, birders, and other park users. The greatest disagreement appears to surround the identification and proposed management of 85 hazard trees, believed to pose actual or potential risks to public safety because of structural weaknesses.

Twenty-three trees are recommended for removal, and another 13 are slated to be reduced to stumps or snags for wildlife habitat. This call to cull includes a few trees with diameters of more than 50 inches. Other trees are recommended for monitoring or for pruning of dead branches that overhang trails.

The overall goal of the VMP includes increasing the snags. These standing dead trees, along with woody debris, are important for wildlife and were largely removed from the park for firewood in the 1930s. Unfortunately, the irony of the hazard tree policy is that it uses evidence such as insect activity to target the snags the plan aims to preserve for removal. According to naturalists associated with The Friends of Seward Park, such trees and their subsequent insect populations are the reason the park hosts six kinds of woodpeckers.

"The only way to make the forest hazard-free is to cut it down and bulldoze it," said Al Smith, a Seattle Parks and Recreation Volunteer of the Year for 2004. He recommended that "the VMP should include an educational component to teach people about the natural life cycle of trees."

Additionally, Smith suggested leaving the trees alone and posting "Enter at your own risk" signs at the forest paths and trailheads.

According to the report, five trees with diameters from 55-72 inches are marked for inspection because of burn marks from a fire about 200 years ago. Naturalists associated with Seward Park's Environmental Learning Center regularly use these trees to teach visitors about forest fires, forest succession, and the age of the "magnificent forest."

Some of the trees growing in the park have been estimated to be between 400 and 500 years old. With the educational, wildlife habitat, and old-growth aspects of these trees in mind, it's clear that trimming trees around playgrounds and other high traffic areas is a different matter than targeting those growing along the forest's interior trails. According to the VMP's own estimate, less than 10 percent of its visitors venture into the interior forests.

Some hope the controversy over hazard trees will raise awareness and bring public comment on other issues addressed in the VMP. Invasive plants such as English ivy, which may cover 8 percent of the park, are widely regarded as the most significant threat to the health of the forest. The Washington Native Plant Society began their Ivy-Off-Urban Trees (IvyOUT) program at Seward Park a few years ago, and it continues with monthly work parties supervised by EarthCorps.

The VMP gives removal of ivy from trees, where the invasive plant typically produces seeds, its highest priority rating. It also recommends eradication of holly, which is the second-most numerous tree species in the park, although it accounts for only 2 percent of the cover.

The plan also outlines steps toward the restoration of the remnant Garry oak-madrone tree community on the south side of the park. This plant community is very rare in Seattle.

It has been speculated that the oaks in Seward Park were planted by ancestors of today's Duwamish Tribe and were maintained as part of a larger prairie that reached to Martha Washington Park.

You can view the Seward Park Vegetation Management Plan at the Columbia City Library and online at

Public comments will be accepted through April 22.

Address comments to Mark Mead (, or to Sandy Brooks (

Additional information on the various plants growing in Seward Park can be found at

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