A coalition rallies behind an important Seattle-area forest

friendsofncf-journalLike many communities on the outskirts of large cities, the city of Bothell, Wash., saw rapid growth during the housing boom of the mid-2000s.

It’s easy to look at growth as an intrinsic threat to preserving open spaces, but that’s not quite how things turned out in Bothell, located outside Seattle.

In fact, you could say that the housing boom and ensuing downturn in the market provided the motivation and then the means for a motivated group of professors, residents, conservationists, elected officials and others to work together to preserve a mile-long corridor of mature coniferous forest.

Friends of North Creek Forest incorporated in 2011. Since then, the group’s volunteers have secured nearly $2.8 million in grants to allow the city of Bothell to purchase the land. As of fall 2016, 56 of the 64 acres of forest have been purchased with protections that will keep the land in open space. One remaining parcel is currently under negotiation.

 A treasure under threat

Maidenhair Fern photo by Sue Choe

Maidenhair Fern photo by Sue-Choe

North Creek Forest is centrally located within Bothell. It’s within 12 miles of every school in the local school district.

As more people moved to Bothell, they liked having the forest nearby. From an ecological perspective, the forest provides important protection to North Creek, an important salmon spawning stream that eventually feeds into Lake Washington and Puget Sound.

“When people moved into the neighborhood near the forest, they had all been told it was greenspace behind their houses,” says Emily Sprong, Executive Director of Friends of North Creek Forest.

But as more and more land areas were proposed for development, people started to realize that the land wasn’t protected, and without action, it, too, would become a residential subdivision.

It was the housing market bust, and the resulting drop in land values, that put the goal of acquiring these 64 acres of forest within reach for Friends of North Creek Forest.

“It was one of the key things that gave us the time we needed to be able to raise the money,” Sprong said.

The group pursued a collaborative strategy of making sure parcels were purchased at fair market value, so that both landowners and preservationists felt they had come out ahead.

Now that the market is coming back, Friends of North Creek Forest is far enough along that it can look to the next phase of its project: stewardship of the forest.

The whole effort has led to more preservation initiatives in Bothell, which Friends of North Creek Forest supports.

“The city is now much more supportive and the model of working with these community groups to help bring more conservation space to the city is something we are really excited about,” Sprong said.

Caring for the forest

Red Alder photo by Sue Choe

Red Alder photo by Sue Choe

The preserved parcels of North Creek Forest are owned by the city of Bothell, and Sprong said Friends of North Creek Forest’s role moving forward will be to help supply the resources and expertise needed to take care of the forest, and to open it up for appropriate public use.

Sometimes that comes in the form of leveraging state resources, like a state department of natural resources stewardship crew who will spend four weeks removing invasive species in the forest next spring, work Sprong estimates to be worth about $20,000.

Students from the University of Washington have designed and implemented detailed restoration projects on several sites within the forest. Sprong said that partnership has allowed the forest to benefit from students who are learning the most up-to-date practices in ecological restoration.

Those restoration projects are then turned over to Friends of North Creek Forest with a detailed 15-year management plan.

Friends of North Creek Forest has also built an active community of volunteers. Sprong said that in 2015, nearly 600 volunteers provided

more than 4,000 hours of direct stewardship work in the forest.

The group tries to make volunteer experiences as positive as possible to create a sense of ownership among members of the community. It’s work parties draw people of all ages.

“It’s not going to work if we don’t have the whole community really on board,” Sprong said.

The group has started holding “Forest Forays,” which are a chance for people to come on short guided walks in the forest, and is working on more family and community programs.

The ultimate goal is to open the forest to the public, but that will take careful planning to make sure sensitive areas are protected and the sometimes steep terrain is made navigable for visitors.

Virtual access through Plants Map

Snowberry photo by E. Church

Snowberry photo by E. Church

While the group works on master plans to eventually be able to invite people into the forest, it has also been building a profile on Plants Map that allows virtual visitors to see what’s being done.

Collections within the Friends of North Creek Forest Plants Map profile document the plants within restoration sites in the forest. Each plant’s page includes information on that plant’s restoration application and other details.

“We are trying to tell the stories of what the restoration is doing,” Sprong said.

The Friends of North Creek profile gives visitors an idea of the range of plants native to the Pacific Northwest that are being used in the forest restoration, and a few before-and-after photos demonstrate the degree to which some areas had been overtaken by invasive species such as Himalayan blackberry before restoration work began.

Sprong said the group hopes to order Plants Map interactive plant signs in the near future to help people walking in the forest to access the informative online profiles by scanning the QR codes with their smartphones.

The group is also launching a “Living Tributes” memorial tree and shrub program, which will allow people to dedicate a plant to a loved one. Plants Map tags will provide physical recognition of the memorial, and participants will have the opportunity to add pictures or other information to the plant’s online Plants Map page to further preserve their memory.

By providing diverse opportunities for people to interact with the forest, from work parties to field trips to virtual tours, Friends of North Creek Forest hopes to keep its community engaged in the ongoing preservation of a resource that a broad coalition of residents of Bothell have come to appreciate.

To learn more, follow the Friends of North Creek Forest on Plants Map.