Seward Parks Oldgrowth Forest – The Next 600 Years

(a rough draft)

Seward Park’s “Magnificent” oldgrowth forest burned twice in the last 600 years. The first of these was a stand-replacement fire: everything burned to the ground about about 1450 AD. Soon the forest regrew. Some trees standing today – primarily Douglas Firs seeded into the burnt over ground.

A second fire burned the entire peninsula about 1750. Apparently this fire was less intense: about one hundred Doug Firs, with their thick protective bark, survived. And once again, the full forest regrew.

The tree pictured above has been tree-ring dated to about 575 years, just after the first fire, and its burned bark is from the second.

Keep this is mind: forests of the Pacific Northwest – indeed, all forests – evolved to be resilient in the face of destructive events. Fire, flood, glaciation, insect damage, even logging. In time, the late succession “climax” heterogeneous forest returns.

That has been the case for the last six hundred years. But what about the next six hundred? Keystone tree and plant species are dying at Seward Park in alarming numbers: hemlocks, cedars, and sword ferns. Douglas firs appear to have unusual mortality.

A number of citizen science projects of the last seven years have obtained counts and geographic distribution of these dramatic species declines. Some hypotheses have emerged about specific pathogenic agents, abetted by a few years of drought, heat and possibly hydrology. It is increasingly evident that the forest is unable to recover from these losses on any human time scale. Foresters predict that the oldgrowth doug firs, hemlocks and cedars will be replaced by a low complexity deciduous forest of alder and maple, the forest floor dominated by invasive ivy, blackberry and holly.

This rare remnant oldgrowth forest, located in the middle of a thriving Pacific Rim city, solace and delight to thousands of visitors, will soon be transformed.

It will soon be transformed unless we undertake a sustained effort to understand the processes at work, to monitor their dynamics, learn to practice adaptive management, to look for remedies. If Seward’s forest is to survive through the next six hundred years, we must get to work.

Our late modern culture, and indeed most cultures in the span of our 200,000 human history have paid little attention to the downstream consequences of our actions. But some cultures have done so, evolving sustainable practices and resilient ecologies. This raises the possibility that our own high-impact, fossil-fuel based, and often nature-blind culture could evolve to a greater sustainability.

That’s a tall order. But the looming tragedy at Seward Park presents the opportunity to pursue it. Seward’s decline offers a tractable instance of the larger cultural problem: a small, valued place to try out strategies of sustained, minimalist adaptive management. We frame this opportunity with a question: How can we ensure that this rare urban oldgrowth forest survives with resilience for the next 600 years? What combination of research, understanding and judicious management is needed?

As we argue elsewhere (see scientific proposal by Dr. Bob Edmonds) Seward’s problems are dramatic and intertwined instances of regional PNW forest problems. If we come to understand Seward’s declines; if we develop monitoring protocols to track key factors; if we arrive at remedies – then these efforts will pay off for the entire Pacific Northwest region. If we turn our attention to Seward’s next 600 years, we will also contribute to regional sustainability.

With hard work, with a strong community, with adequate funding and good science, we might bend the trajectory of our late capitalist economy and culture – bend it just a bit – in a healthier direction. If we can get Seward’s next 600 years right, other good things will follow.

what follows is a hodge-podge of text from earlier versions of this document.

But on the planet today, and in Seward’s forest, it is harder to overlook the consequences of our numbers, our actions, our technologies. A new ethic would be welcome – one in which the consequences are studied and comprehended, and our actions and technologies then adapted to sustain, rather than harm the fabric of the world in which we live.

Anthropogenic (human-caused) effects are now visible throughout the forest:

  • Invasive species: ivy, himalayan blackberry, holly, herb robert
  • Sword fern die-off
  • Hemlock decline
  • Cedar die-off
  • Worrisome mortality among firs > 80 years from Phaelolus schweinitzii
  • Increasing fragmentation from social trails, rogue social events deep in the woods, some unsanctioned camping.

A very small crew of volunteers, and some occasional workers on contract from Parks, work to mitigate some of the worst effects. But ferns are dead everywhere, hemlocks and cedars are dying, ivy is returning, holly and blackberry are common, social trails regularly appear. The venerable doug firs appear to be at risk, with trees older than 80 years newly susceptible to fungal disease.

We see that this forestIf we leave the forest on this trajectory, these effects will multiply. New disruptions will likely appear, and negative factors will likely combine to cause yet greater harm.

What is to be done? What strategies would make up a balance of “not too much, not too little”? That balance cannot be found until we understand this forest far better than we do now. As we argue elsewhere, Without that understanding, and without judicious managment, this rare urban forest

Lindenmayer and Franklin caution against excessive intervention (Conserving Forest Biodiversity, 2002, p85):

Although active human management of [forest] reserves is often needed, it has to be balanced against the importance of maintaining all or portions of reserves as free as possible from human activities. This is because the full impacts of human actions are not known and some may have unexpected negative effects on biodiversity.

Our efforts to date have been ad hoc. To find the right mix of strategies we must understand the specific cause of species decline, and acquire a thorough understand the ecology of this forest: its hydrology, its soil, the underlying geological variation.

  • We need to survey the forest and ecosystem – in detail – at regular intervals.
  • A mix of restoration strategies will likely be needed; small-scale scrupulously monitored restoration experiments should be tried. “Benign neglect” restoration should be tried as well: we know what happens to denuded, unrestored areas five years after sword ferns die. What happens after 20?
  • Invasive removal is once again urgent, twenty years after the IVY O.U.T projects. Invasive monitoring and response will be a permanent activity.

These efforts require skilled labor – a lot of skilled labor, going on for a long time. We have among us educators ready to assist – teachers who have an eye out for both social justice and the health of the forest. Joey Manson at Audubon works with local high schools and projects like Tenacious Roots, UW’s Tim Billo and his many students have worked in the forest for a decade. We need ongoing organization and funding – though here too, as with forest interventions, a judicous minimalism will serve us well. Ongoing and skillful public relations will be important also: in print, in signs, in video, in web development.

We propose a one-day symposium for early fall:

Seward’s Forest: the next 600 years. A call for proposals.

A call for and then discussion and evaluation of proposals – for forest surveys, for engaging students and citizens, for experimental restoration strategies. Synergies among the proposals may emerge. Following the symposium, and the selection of the most promising proposals, sufficient funding will be sought. We aspire to match the fund-raising prowess of the Torii Committee.

The broader vision: many are concerned about, many are pessimistic about the future of our planet, and of our social fabric. Climate change, infectious disease, growing inequity, deepening political divide: these maladies operate at such a scale, and with such tenacity, that progress is hard to come by – it is now even hard to imagine.

The forest at Seward Park is different. It is a tractable problem. By addressing it, with modesty, with collegiality, with small-scale experiments and detailed observations, the forest can thrive, young scientists can be trained, and ways to live sustainably with the beauty of this wild isle in the city will emerge – and may even teach us lessons applicable on a larger scale.