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In Seattle, an Ongoing Effort to Save the Region’s Green Spaces

By Eilís O'Neill
Earth Island Journal
The Mountain to Sound Greenway Trust aims to find a happy balance between development and wildlands protection

Whenever I go back to Seattle after a long time away, I’m struck by how green it is. The streets are lined with trees; there are parks everywhere; and I can see snow-covered peaks to the west, the east, and the south.

Those green spaces – the urban, suburban, and nearby wilds – are important both for people and for wildlife, says Lyanda Lynn Haupt, a Seattle-based author, naturalist, and eco-philosopher. “A tree outside a hospital window – just one tree can speed healing from surgery. One tree outside of a Chicago housing project can increase the attention span and the study habits for a student that lives in that project,” she explains. “Time in nature, even if it’s a small urban green space, makes us smarter, more creative, happier, and healthier.” At the same time, she adds, “creating even a small green space will invite more species diversity into a city.”

Greater Seattle’s green spaces were hard-won, says Doug Schindler, the deputy director of the Seattle-based nonprofit Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust. In 1991, as the Seattle area’s population started to grow rapidly and exert pressure on remaining undeveloped land, a group of conservationists, business leaders, and nonprofits came together to protect key green spaces and wild areas in three Western Washington watersheds. They started to negotiate and bargain in order to preserve a greenway that stretches from the Cascade Mountains in the east to the Puget Sound in the west. The aim of the project, according to the trust’s mission statement, was to find a “long-term balance between people and nature.” This model of protecting key tracts of land and wildlife corridors and of working with developers to find ways to incorporate green space in new developments could be replicated in many urban areas throughout the United States, thus ensuring access to nature for generations to come, Schindler says.

If anything, the threats to greater Seattle’s remaining green spaces have been growing over the years. Seattle is the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the United States, according to the 2013 census. That said, the Greenway Trust “isn’t anti-growth,” says Schindler. Instead, he says, it asks the question, “How do we do smart growth?”

That means not every tree and wildflower and patch of green gets saved. In 2012, Ben Hughey worked for the nonprofit building a trail up Mailbox Peak, about 30 miles east of Seattle. “We were dropping trees and the excavator was cutting bench behind us,” he remembers. “It was pretty funny to be working for an environmental non-profit as a logger, and it was actually kind of my first eye-opening experience to the pragmatism of the trust.” Of course, the end goal was conservation: The trail was designed to prevent further erosion on the peak and “to get more people experiencing the outdoors so they … will be advocates and supporters of initiatives to protect these wildlands,” Hughey explains.

The Greenway Trust brings a similar pragmatism to discussions with developers. In one instance in the 1990s, a developer submitted a plan to the city of Issaquah for a sprawling subdivision. According to Hughey’s account, the city council suggested the developer talk with the Greenway Trust. Following the trust’s advice, the developer built denser housing and donated the remaining land to the city of Issaquah to for a nature park. By doing so, it lowered its construction and utility costs and was able to market the development as close to green space.

“One of the things I love about [the Mountains to Sound] philosophy is that they don’t tease out an absolute line or separation” between built and natural environments, says Haupt, the naturalist. That’s important, Haupt says, because, “if … nature is something we go to, we’re really in trouble for the rest of our days that we’re not going to nature. And we need to cultivate that connection [with] and that awareness [of nature] in our daily lives.”

To lend more weight to its attempts to help negotiate land deals and protect key wild spaces, the trust is seeking to have the greenway recognized as a National Heritage Area. A bill to this effect is currently pending the approval of the House Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

“A big reason people come to our region is its natural beauty, rich wildlife habitats, and unique ecosystems,” says Representative Jim McDermott of Seattle, a cosponsor of the bill in the House. “The Greenway not only acknowledges the region’s contributions to our national heritage and preserves much-needed habitat; it preserves access to one of Seattle’s competitive advantages: the environment.”

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