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Originally published November 22, 2013 at 5:34 PM | Page modified November 22, 2013 at 6:06 PM

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Guest: The urban wild needs protection in Seattle parks

Seattle should pass an urban wild measure to protect our park natural areas, writes guest columnist Denise Dahn.

Special to The Times

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I CAN walk down my front steps and eight minutes later be surrounded by a forest of towering cedars, Douglas firs and mossy maples. It’s the same in many Seattle neighborhoods — you can be in full urban-mode one minute and in a forest or on a beach the next, feeling like you’ve been magically transported from the hard edges of city life. Spend a half-hour, and you’re renewed.

This is the urban wild. It’s found in Seattle Park Natural Areas, the gems of our city parks. It’s remnant wild nature right at our doorstep, and it’s a big reason people want to live here. We love our nature to death.

Trouble is, we’re starting to do just that. Imagine our forests trampled and fragmented, wildlife stressed, views marred, and peace disrupted. No one should take the urban wild for granted. Without formal protection, it won’t last.

In 1964, this same realization inspired the national Wilderness Preservation Act. National parks and forests were showing ecological wear and tear from overdevelopment and overuse. People could see that without protection, wild nature would be lost.

We need a similar vision now. Seattle should have a municipal version of the same idea: an urban wild measure to formally protect our park natural areas and provide secure funding to manage them using science-based urban-ecology standards. It’s important for wildlife and for the rest of us. All people, young and old, rich and poor, need daily contact with nature to be happy and healthy.

You might assume park natural areas are already protected. After all, birds sing in the trees, baby seals snooze on the beach and the woods bustle with Green Seattle volunteers on their 20-year mission to restore urban forests. It’s all good, right?

Not necessarily. The budget cuts of the Great Recession bled city parks dry. The workers have done the best they can, but with insecure funding, the utilization of natural areas is inevitable.

Stewardship is part of Seattle Parks’ mission, yet there is nothing to prevent development or encroachment on natural areas. Last year’s proposed plan to install a commercial canopy zip line in Lincoln Park’s forest is proof of that.

Traditionally, park policy has kept natural areas for passive use, but times are changing. Playing in the woods is not what it used to be. Mountain biking, zip lines, cyclocross and foraging are some of the interests that lobby for access to the urban wild — and the parks department has considered them. To some people, if it’s not high-speed, high-tech, high-impact or high-volume, it might as well be a bowl of broccoli.

Still, most of us know that meaningful contact with nature tends to be slow, quiet and reflective. It’s easier on the nature, too. A Parks Legacy Plan survey found most people, 78 percent, use parks for simple walking (tied with picnicking).

And yet, active sports and recreation groups — and the potential revenue they bring in — are energetic, organized, vocal and tend to dominate policy. Birds and squirrels, not so much.

We also pay heavily for recreational interests. Developed parkland is much more expensive to maintain than natural areas. Unlike Portland, where 70 percent of total parkland is left natural, Seattle is just the opposite: Eighty-six percent of our parkland is developed or landscaped. Only 14 percent is natural.

It won’t take much before our remnant urban wild is all used up. Seattle is growing fast. Combine increased use, higher-impact recreation and encroachment with a densifying city, and the future urban wild will end up ecologically degraded and ugly.

Seattle City Council should create an urban wild ordinance to permanently fund and protect natural areas in Seattle parks. The areas should be managed specifically for ecological processes — wildlife habitat, soils, water — but also to preserve an essential experience for people: the magic of the urban wild.

Future generations are going to need this refuge even more than we do now. We’re leaving them with enough problems as it is.

Denise Dahn is an artist, writer, designer, owner of Dahn Design and co-founder of The Alliance for Seattle Park Nature.

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