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Changing Visions | Part 5 Cover Story
Creating ecotopia | From french-fry oil to rain barrels ...

The series: In this ongoing series, Pacific Northwest magazine explores the forces of change around us and its significance to our future as a community. Readers have been chiming in with their own opinions, suggestions, horror stories and even creative solutions.
Read other installments in the series.
To contribute your comments, e-mail or write to "The Big Squeeze," Pacific Northwest magazine, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111.
EARTH DAY seems to have gone from cause to commitment.

How else to explain the greening of Pugetopia?

Vashon Island, described by activist Rita Schenck as "one-third artists, one-third environmentalists and one-third lawyers," is trying to declare its independence by becoming more sustainable and point the way to a "Puget Paradise."

Tacoma is taking its Superfund lemons and making lemonade.

And the city of Seattle is squinting into the rain and seeing pennies from heaven.
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Erin Kenny nibbles new growth off the tips of a Western red cedar bough, which she says is more effective than echinacea in boosting the immune system.
These are three random examples of ways in which sustainability and stewardship have penetrated mainstream thinking. Heck, when you've got oilman George W. Bush touting hydrogen cars, Seattle City Light ditching the Centralia coal-fired power plant in favor of windmills, and Weyerhaeuser trying to make land swaps to promote conservation, the 33-year-old annual observance created by Seattle's Denis Hayes seems to have achieved some sticking power.

OK, we're not exactly Ecotopia, the term coined by author Ernest Callenbach in a novel of the same name. It's nip and tuck on whether our species is going to bulldoze, pollute and terrorize itself into extinction. But in the meantime, there's a lot of creativity going on. Examples:

Vashon Island is the hippie Bainbridge. Once pretty much self-sustaining when it was dominated first by Salish Indians and then Japanese farmers, it wants to be so again. While the 25,000-acre Puget Sound island is increasingly a bedroom community in which 60 percent of its approximately 10,000 residents commute to jobs in Seattle and Tacoma, it is also a place where 1970 Earth Day idealism never went out of style: It even has an Island Earth Fair each August.

True, everything on Vashon comes in and goes out by boat. But the island's Schenck, founder of an organization called Sustainable Vashon, wants to change that.

She and a cadre of activists are working toward a day when island motorists will fill up with diesel made from plant products, when consumers will buy shares in vegetable crops, when the wood thinned from recovering forests goes directly to Vashon housing, furniture and fireplaces, when garbage is tapped for methane, new septic-tank technology halts Puget Sound pollution, salmon numbers increase in island streams, cars are shared, and solar and wind power feed the electrical grid.

Simply put, an island of highly-educated tree-huggers is trying to create a coherent plan for a sustainable future and become the first example of what Schenck calls "Puget Paradise."
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On Vashon Island, 18 households formed a co-housing project that combines cooperative and sustainable rural living with residential density. Once a month the resident-members have a work party to maintain and improve the common areas on the 13 acres they share. Using hand tools to convert a lawn to a garden area in front of the community building are Damon Lanphear, left with hoe, Risa Stahl, with digger bar, and Todd Froyland, with shovel.
Islanders started back in the 1980s by changing zoning so fewer lots could be sold, putting the brakes on population growth. The Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust (Maury is linked to Vashon by a causeway) has protected about 750 acres through purchase or conservation easements, such as a headwaters pond donated by resident Bill Fisher. About 1,200 additional acres are set aside in parks, and county and land trust work closely together. A number of farmers are trying to raise crops and animals in low-tech, environmentally gentle ways.

But Vashon remains dominated by trees. About 80 percent of the island is forest, last clear-cut in the 1960s and '70s and now growing back in raggedy second-growth too dense to promote either trees or good ecosystems. Fred Sayer of Island Forest Stewards is helping lead an effort to assist landowners with thinning their acreage.

Environmentalists promoting logging? In this case, yes. The remaining trees grow faster and are less susceptible to fire. Some of the wood cut becomes structural lumber, some is left to rot and renourish, and some slash is burned for purposes such as potters' kilns. More wood, less oil. "The goal is that our trees don't leave the island," Sayer says.

Another island resident, Scott Durkee, is running his old Mercedes on biodiesel fuel he makes himself by recycling the oil from restaurant deep fryers in his own 55-gallon drums, using a few chemicals to convert waste to energy. His exhaust smells like French fries.
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Scott Durkee runs his Mercedes Benz on homemade biodiesel that he makes from used deep-fryer oil he acquires from the grocery store on Vashon Island. His exhaust smells like French fries.
Durkee, who recently found himself on the cover of Home Power magazine (yes, there is such a thing) sees independence from foreign oil as one step toward peace. It was an island meeting about war with Iraq that got residents going on organizing Sustainable Vashon.

"Oil took millions of years to create," he says. "Biodiesel can be made in a year on a farm, and you can keep making it forever." Becoming your own refiner isn't simple — it requires a respirator and care with what can become volatile chemistry (Durkee's operation recently burned down) — but the island could centralize the process someday as a cottage industry, dispensed through gas stations. "It's a blend of hippie and high-tech" that burns more cleanly than regular diesel, Durkee says. It could also be used to run the ferries, he suggests.

At another Vashon location, a coalition that included skilled carpenters developed a co-housing project in which residents share labor to erect modest homes on communal land and escape high monthly house payments.

The big ideas are accompanied by smaller ones.
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Tacoma has rejuvenated the Thea Foss Waterway, recently adding Thea's Landing, a large apartment and retail complex, adjacent to the Museum of Glass. The residences have views into the museum's reflecting ponds and an installation — "Call of the Wild" — by Patrick Dougherty.
The island nursery promotes native plants, even as islanders combat alien, tree-choking invaders such as English ivy and holly. Islanders are encouraged to conduct a "whale-friendly lawn program" by eliminating pesticides. Potters use local Lawton Blue Clay instead of importing working materials. Puget Power shreds the tree limbs it trims and shares out the mulch through a reservation system. While King County wants to discourage the idea of a central landfill because of potential pollution problems, activists want to encourage one for composting yard waste that could be tapped for topsoil and methane gas.

Vashon's 74 streams already have salmon in them, and the community wants to keep them that way, hoping to make Shingle Mill and Judd creeks among the most productive on Puget Sound. They want to upgrade a sewage-treatment plant so it can serve more than 10 percent of the island. Farmers are trying to survive with subscription farming, in which their neighbors essentially buy shares in that year's crop before it is planted, then divvy up the harvest.

Even medicine might become more self-sustainable. Midwife Shaheeda Pierce says the island's number of home births is rising as success stories convince women they don't necessarily have to run for the ferry when labor starts.
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Tacoma's Museum of Glass "hot shop" is a stark architectural contrast to the vintage Albers Mill building that is under renovation up the Foss Waterway from the museum.
As an extreme example of sustainable living, 42-year-old ethno-botanist Erin Kenny decided not to use her University of Washington law degree and instead built a 12-by-16-foot cabin on five acres with no electricity or running water. She forages woodland plants for much of her food and drugs. To support herself, she teaches classes in edible plants to children and adults.

"I want the kids to re-establish a connection with nature I think we have lost," she says. They react enthusiastically at the idea of eating nettles, the catkins from an alder tree or the inner bark of a conifer.

Pregnant, she plans to give birth in an already-selected growth of trees and "add on" to the cabin by building a yurt. "I have no mortgage, no credit cards and no debt," she says.

Even on Vashon, few would adopt Kenny's Earth-mother lifestyle, but its spirit infuses island life. Shared trucks and lawnmowers, sustainable animal husbandry, holistic-health centers — Vashon even cleaned up its own playgrounds from decades of Asarco smelter pollution by inverting contaminated soil and putting clean on top, rather than waiting years for lawyers and governments to wrangle their way to a solution.
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Seattle Conservation Corps worker James Ragin hauls off two of the 1,500 barrels being prepared for distribution to Seattle homeowners so they can collect rainwater to use on lawns and gardens, as well as to flush toilets.
OK, you're thinking, Puget Paradise is all well and good for hippie-dippy, bead-wearing, mantra-chanting, tofu-chewing islanders. (Even though we didn't hear any mantras or see any tofu.) But what about a rugged, blue-collar, military, industrial, complex city of destiny like Tacoma? Surely it stands as a firm bulwark against ecotopian frou-frou!

Read on.

OF ALL PUGET Sound's 2,354 miles of shoreline, the least likely spot for residential development and new urbanism would seem to be an industrial waterway that could qualify as a Superfund site and affords a view of a tank farm and pulp mill. Right?

Think again.

Foss Waterway actually has numerous advantages. It's adjacent to a downtown that is enjoying an urban renaissance, thanks to the new University of Washington campus, state history museum, Museum of Glass, convention center and refurbished Union Station. It provides superb shelter for new marinas. And, as a working waterway, it's visually interesting.

That's why the city, state and developers have united behind a plan to turn a 1.5-mile stretch of shoreline formally devoted to decaying warehouses and railyards into a new residential neighborhood of condominiums, apartments, stores and offices. Come live on an industrial wasteland!
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It all started when Congress settled a long-standing land-claims dispute with the Puyallup Tribe, the state approved a Foss Water Development Authority, 30 acres were purchased from Burlington Northern railroad, and the city granted a 10-year exemption from property taxes to developers and buyers who want to live on the water. They can walk to theaters or the Tacoma Dome. When docks are finished soon, they can step from living room to boat.

The new esplanade attracts joggers and bikers. New fill, above the tideline and below it, is covering polluted soil and allowing a comeback of marine species. The historic Albers Mill is being restored. And the first large residential complex, erected next to the Museum of Glass, has been a hit with renters and home buyers.

The city is even completing its own light-rail line from the Tacoma Dome to the theater district downtown. With a guarantee of an eight-week permit process and high-tech wiring, Seattle's neighbor is quietly trying to steal a march on its neighbors.
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Rich Cromer collects rainwater in an 1,800-gallon tank in his North Seattle garden to keep his city water consumption below the level that would trigger surcharges.
"Tacoma is rediscovering itself," says Don Meyer, head of the new development authority. The duckling is realizing it could become a swan.

You have to remember how bad Tacoma was ("the aroma of Tacoma," the depressing skid road of Pacific Avenue) to understand how far it has come. Ruston Way, which once led from the brown-colored headwaters of Commencement Bay to the Asarco Superfund site, has become a network of walkways, parks and waterfront restaurants. Migrating salmon that once entered a virtual dead zone to get to and from the Puyallup River now have rehabilitated wetlands and near-shore habitat to help them on their way. New container docks are shifting the port's emphasis from smokestack industries to transport.

The Port of Tacoma has joined the Puyallup Indians to create more than 20 acres of wetlands on two sites on the Puyallup River, and has created new marine habitat on the Blair Waterway, Milwaukee Waterway and Hylebos Waterway. Fish are feeding in what were once a marina, a chemical plant and a ship dock. Contaminated sediments are being dredged and used as fill for new docks, which are then capped with clean mud.

In other words, the world has turned upside down when we can talk about Tacoma and Earth Day in a single breath. Is no precinct safe from creeping ecotopianism? Let's beat a retreat to Seattle, where certainly big talk and bigger process will prevent anything from really getting done. Yes, the city of bureaucracy, where do-goodism goes to die! But wait . . .
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On the property of a Vashon Island homeowner, Tom Harrigan mills lumber that was cut on the land and will be used there to build a timber-framed barn. Harrigan co-owns the portable milling operation called Logs to Lumber and participates in the Island Forest Stewards program.
Fred Sayer, of Vashon's Island Forest Stewards, uses wood harvested on the island to manufacture a set of windows for a local builder. The organization promotes ecological logging and encourages landowners to keep the harvested timber on the island.
STEVE MODDEMEYER DEFIES the stereotype of the city bureaucrat. Working on policy issues for Seattle Public Utilities, he's smart, personable and given to asking awkward questions. For example: Why is the region building still more pipelines to bring water from the Cascade Mountains when the rainfall within the city limits represents twice as much water as Seattle consumes?

The answer, of course, is that water that comes from pipes is a resource, and water that falls on you is "waste." Nasty rainwater needs to be collected in gutters and downspouts, shunted to the street, directed to storm sewers and maybe even treated before being shown the door to Puget Sound. Even worse, rainwater sometimes combines with sewage water to overwhelm treatment pipes — and the whole mess goes directly into salt water, making pollution even worse.

So we're spending $110 million to control that problem, $200 million to improve drainage, $12 million to restore creeks that some rain is funneled into — meanwhile importing 80 million gallons of water a day.

That just might be crazy. Averaged over a year, it rains 160 million gallons per day on Seattle, or twice as much as the city uses.

So Moddemeyer and his colleagues have come up with a decidedly low-tech alternative to all this engineering: a covered rain barrel with spigot and pipes.

A typical cistern might hold from 60 to 90 gallons of the rain that runs off your roof. It would be used to water lawns and flush toilets, which is what 80 percent of piped water is used for now.

"Let's use clouds to convey water," Moddemeyer says. And the water stored is water that doesn't go down street drains, becoming a disposal problem.

This idea is so simple and so sensible that, of course, it's moving at the speed of the Nisqually Glacier. Still, there are plans to try it on 24 volunteer homes this year to see if "rainwater harvest" — is that a great phrase, or what? — really makes sense.

In Portland, a family of five installed a covered cistern, a pump, sanitizer and pipes — an elaborate system that cost $1,500 — and now collects 27,000 gallons a year from a 1,200-square-foot roof. Their water meter measured so little consumption that city officials assumed it must be broken and gave them a fat bill for water they assumed the family must be using. Only after protest was the charge dropped.
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Hoping to avoid a ferry ride when labor begins, Sabrina Baker is planning to have her child with help from Vashon Island midwife Shaheeda Pierce.
In a recent poll in Seattle, about two-thirds of those asked about rain barrels said the idea was appealing. But if it cost $30 (systems can be far simpler than that Portland home) only 40 percent were very or somewhat likely to buy one, and at $80 the buyers dropped to 19 percent. They questioned what it would look like and whether it would breed mosquitoes or scum. And while piping to fill a garden hose might be easy, piping to connect a toilet is more complicated.

So, the city wants to test it on those volunteers and then try applying it to watersheds. Still, an early estimate is that rain barrels around North Seattle's Thornton Creek could eliminate half the drainage impact, at a cost of $335,000. A single tank to contain combined sewage and storm-water overflows costs twice that much.

"We're trying to change to an organization where the conscious intent is to provide sustainability," Moddemeyer says.

Which is just what Denis Hayes, when he dreamed up Earth Day, had in mind more than three decades ago.

William Dietrich is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff reporter. His latest book, "Natural Grace: The Charm, Wonder and Lessons of Pacific Northwest Animals and Plants" (University of Washington Press, $16.95), is a collection of essays adapted from pieces that appeared in this magazine. Harley Soltes is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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