The Next 600 Years

(an early draft)

The Magnificent Forest has burned twice in the last 600 years: around the year 1500, with no apparent survivors, then again about 250 years ago, with 100 doug fir survivors, and a dozen cedars – easily recognized by their partly burned bark.

The Pacific Northwest fir/hemlock/cedar forest is adapted to fire, flood, avalanche and wind storms. The forest we see today demonstrates that resilience, which has evolved over the Pleistocene and Holocene epochs, the last 2M years.

But the forest is not resilient to the onslaught of the Anthropocene – the era whose start is dated variously, but which an emerging consensus places just after WWII, at mid-twentieth century.

Anthropogenic effects are now visible throughout the forest:

  • invasive species: ivy, himalayan blackberry, holly, herb robert
  • sword fern die-off
  • hemlock decline
  • increasing fragmentation from social trails

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 are dying, ivy is returning, holly and blackberry are common, social trails regularly appear.

If we leave the forest on this trajectory, these effects will multiply. New disruptions will likely appear, and negative factors may combine for yet greater harm.

What is to be done?

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.

Therefore we should act with restraint, acquire understanding and skill as we go – mixing a certain zeal in monitoring with caution in action:

  • We need to survey the forest – 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.