Public land in the U.S. – origins in a 1910 forest fire

KUOW aired an interesting piece last night during their show The Conversation, about the early history of setting aside land for public use in this country. It’s not about urban areas, but definitely of interest to those who are into public space, especially public natural area.

“In 1910 the largest forest fire in U.S. history raged through the Northern Rockies in Idaho, Washington and Montana. In “The Big Burn,” Seattle–based New York Times columnist Tim Egan tells how the natural disaster changed America.” – click here to listen to last night’s episode of The Conversation. The forest fire piece is the last one: start time is 34 minutes in.

Thinking about restoration: invasive weeds

We spend a lot of time worrying about the impacts of invasive species in the Green Cities world.  As we say in the 20-Year Forest Management Plans, “The dominance of nonnative plant species…is a major cause of biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation in urban forest.  These invasive weeds lack natural population control and are capable of rapid reproduction; they can quickly blanket the understory and prevent native plants from reseeding.”  It would seem that getting rid of them would be the smart thing to do, so get rid of them we do.  Volunteers in Seattle have spent tens of thousands of hours grubbing out blackberry and rolling up ivy in parks across the city.  The work isn’t easy and can easily leave one cursing the invasive scourge.  The clear-and-present danger invasives pose to our cherished natives, in harmony with the blood, sweat and tears needed to remove them has created the perfect environment for what I call ‘The War on Weeds.’  Grab your hand tiller or pulaski and HAVE NO MERCY!  It is an easy way to get motivated and a good outlet for aggression.  But, it can be a morally dangerous mindset.

A volunteer group sizes up an ivy patch at last week's Day of Caring event in Interlaken Park
A volunteer group sizes up an ivy patch at last week's Day of Caring event in Interlaken Park

Invasive weeds are our fault.
Humans are the vectors for the introduction of new species in areas all over the world.  Globalization has led to a redefinition of boundaries; the world is getting smaller.  Species have always traveled (on the wind, waves and winged creatures) and have always disrupted established ecosystems, just at a much slower pace.  Stability was achieved and species were naturalized, but it took time.  We have given organisms a lot more chances (sometimes intentionally), a lot faster modes of travel, and we have also created the disturbances that new species need to take hold.  The problems we experience with invasive species are entirely our fault, so why should we blame the plants which are simply filling the niche we have carved for them?

Aside from ignoring the root (no pun intended) of the problem, I believe the ‘War on Weeds’ is morally questionable as well.  Anthropomorphizing plants draws unnecessary comparisons between unwanted plants and unwanted people.  We can’t allow ourselves to adopt the same antiquated perspectives of the eugenicists of the early 20th century.  We should be embracing diversity and accommodating change instead of fighting whole-heartedly to protect ‘our own.’  The things that make our native trees unique are in the ecological role they play for our region’s fauna and the services they provide to our cities, not their status as Northwest icons.  Native conifers do an amazing job at retaining stormwater, preventing erosion, sequestering carbon, scrubbing pollutants, providing habitat, etc.  Invasive plants are typically not as good at these things.

The Green Cities Partnerships are really good at looking at the big picture, which I believe is the way to go.  If we frame our efforts positively, we will get a lot farther than if we are focusing on ‘eradication for the sake of eradication.’  We should also be working to demonstrate to others why we’re better off not introducing these species and creating the disturbances in the first place.  You can still buy English ivy for your garden at local nurseries.  Huh?  Our communities have the opportunity to embrace change and ferry the health of our urban forests through tough times, but only if we recognize that we hold the keys to the solutions as well as the problems.

More to come in the next few months.

Welcome to Green Cities!

Hello and welcome to the brand-new blog for the Green City Partnerships! We are a collection of public-private partnerships operating in the Puget Sound region of Washington State. We hope that this blog will encourage more communication about urban natural areas and engage more of our community in restoration.

The mission of the Green City Partnership Network is to advance healthy natural open space in urban areas, and to empower people to be agents of change in their communities. We do restoration and maintenance on public natural spaces both for the benefits of “green services” like stormwater retention, carbon sequestration, and wildlife habitat, and also in order to provide cities with spaces where nature can be appreciated close at hand. We rely on a growing network of amazing volunteers to do much of the work from Seattle to Tacoma to Kirkland to Redmond and beyond.

We are all connected, but we don’t always feel that way. One way that the Green City Partnerships help to build community is by bringing people together, physically, around the stewardship of natural open space. Another way is to facilitate more dialogue within and between our programs. We have so much knowledge now among all of our partners, we wanted to share it with each other. This blog was created for all of the Green City Partnerships to share information; keep each other informed about topics related to urban natural space locally, regionally, nationally, and globally; and create a more multi-directional dialogue about the great work that we are doing together. Sometimes it’s helpful to remember that while we are pulling ivy on one acre of neighborhood park, we are working towards something much bigger: a healthier urban environment in our region and a stewardship community to sustain it into the future.

Here’s a great piece of wisdom from our friends at Nature in the City in San Francisco:

“Human and natural communities are all characterized by interconnectedness, interdependence, diversity, adaptability, sense of place and mutual aid and responsibility. True long-term local urban ecological sustainability is dependent upon blurring the distinction between human and natural communities – on the development and mutual coevolution of a healthy and restorative local human-nature relationship.”

(Nature in the City is a project of Earth Island Institute, an organization dedicated to ecological conservation, restoration, and stewardship of the Franciscan bioregion)

Please check this space for upcoming articles on news from our programs, stories about urban natural areas at home and around the world, native plants from our region, frequently asked questions, behind the scenes at Green Cities, and volunteer spotlights. We hope you’ll like what you find and we look forward to your comments.

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Best,

The Green Cities Team