Healthy forests can pay off for Federal Way

By Chris Carrel, Thinking Locally

Federal Way’s forests are in trouble.

Unlike some of our fellow Puget Sound cities, Federal Way has been wise (and in some cases lucky) enough to preserve a large number of forested areas (and we’re working on saving a few more). However, in a densely urbanized area like Puget Sound, it’s no longer enough to simply preserve forests. The real trick is maintaining forest health in the midst of a dense urban area.

In the past several columns, I’ve explored environmental priorities for the city of Federal Way. The columns aren’t necessarily in order of priority, because urban forest health is my personal number one issue.

A confession: I am not a tree hugger. I spent much time from ages 5 to 12 climbing and playing in, and yes, falling out of Federal Way’s trees (I know that explains a lot). But I haven’t ever really hugged one. Nevertheless, as you can probably tell, I’m pretty fond of trees and what they bring to our community.

Healthy forests filter pollution and produce clean air. They’re a huge factor in absorbing and cleaning surface water before it gets to our local creeks and wetlands. And let’s face it, forests are also beautiful to look at and to walk through.

And there’s a serious economic angle as well. Studies have shown that protected open space raises the property value of nearby homes. That’s not just good for the homeowner — those extra property taxes feed our schools and local government services.

The city of Seattle estimates that its trees constitute a $635 million asset. Seattle estimates that its trees boost property values by an additional $630 million and city tax revenues by $135 million. To my knowledge, Federal Way has not undertaken a similar evaluation, but the Seattle numbers suggest that we consider the economic importance of trees and healthy forests.

Being an urban area, our forests are assaulted by air pollution and, in wetter areas, stressed by stormwater flows. As properties develop, larger forests are broken into smaller fragments, undermining the health and vitality of forest systems and leaving individual trees more susceptible to wind damage.

The number one problem, by far, is the threat of invasive nonnative plants. Puget Sound’s forests are experiencing an unprecedented biological invasion of vines and shrubs that can prevent seedlings from getting established, and can even outcompete and kill mature trees and destroy tracts of forest. It’s the immigration debate, forest style.

Through our Hylebos Creek Conservation Initiative, the Friends is working to preserve and restore 745 acres of green space, from the West Hylebos Wetlands to Commencement Bay. Believe it or not, our chief activity is fighting invasive weeds. Often, we can plant a site with native trees and shrubs in a day or two. However, we have to regularly return to the site for the next three to five years to remove invasive species if those trees are to have a chance to survive.

We are working with partners like Federal Way and King and Pierce counties at several sites to restore forests. However, 745 acres is a lot of ground to cover and more resources are needed. Currently, our efforts are focused on planting and establishing trees and aren’t yet dealing with mature forests that have invasive species infestations.

Moreover, the Hylebos Creek Conservation Initiative only touches on the middle and southern parts of Federal Way. Some of the most beautiful — and most threatened forests — rest outside the Hylebos Watershed. In fact, much of the forested shoreline of Northwestern Federal Way is in the process of being strangled to death by English ivy.

In my own neighborhood, I can walk into Poverty Bay Park and see 200-year-old hemlocks and firs smothered in the tendrils and waxy green leaves of this escaped yard ornamental. English ivy climbs tall trees for light, encasing the tree in a sheath of ivy and eventually killing it. Left unchecked, English ivy will deforest Poverty Bay Park and other afflicted forests, just as surely as if it were cleared for a housing development.

In other communities, awareness of the threats to urban forests has led to action. Seattle is perhaps most notable, having developed a bold and aggressive Green Seattle Partnership — a coalition of city government, nonprofits, private businesses and volunteers — to restore and sustain their forests. Just this month, the city of Kirkland produced an aggressive 20-year parks forest restoration plan.

Do we need a Green Federal Way Partnership? Something like it, I think. The challenges of managing urban forests are too big for the city, nonprofits or volunteers alone. Combining resources, effort and commitment is the key to saving Federal Way’s urban forests for the next generation and, let’s face it, for this generation, too.

I’m not climbing trees any longer, but I still like to look at them.

Chris Carrel is a lifelong Federal Way resident and executive director of the Friends of the Hylebos, a nonprofit conservation organization working to preserve and restore Hylebos Creek and the West Hylebos Wetlands. Chris can be contacted at chinook@hylebos.org or (253) 874-2005.

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