About 10% of Seattle’s land mass is parkland. And of this, about 15% (approx 830 acres) are undeveloped natural areas. In contrast, San Francisco with almost the same acreage of parkland as Seattle has over 54% of its parks designated as natural areas.
The Cheasty Greenbelt is an undeveloped 43 acre greenspace on the east slope of Beacon Hill. Seattle Parks and Recreation’s Plan 2000 defines “greenspaces” as “areas designated for preservation because of their natural or ecological qualities, and their potential to contribute to an interconnected open space system…Greenspaces can be categorized into greenbelts and natural areas. Greenbelts refer to large areas of often contiguous greenspace, and natural areas correspond to smaller greenspace parcels.”
The Vegetation Management Plan (VMP) for the Cheasty Greenspace describes the variety of deciduous tree species found there, both native and non-native. “Cheasty greenspace has a fairly intact native shrub layer, both in terms of diversity and cover. Common native understory dominants found in the greenspace include: hazelnut, indian plum, snowberry, vine maple, red elderberry, rose, low Oregon grape, and oceanspray. Three riparian corridors and associated wetlands were identified.”
The VMP also states that Cheasty “has notable wildlife value.” And that “much of the wildlife habitat value of Cheasty Greenspace lies in the preservation of some forested interior habitat—a rarity in an urban landscape.”
Cheasty Greenspace has for decades drawn the dedication of neighbors who fought off its development, steered the city to acquire lands to grow the greenspace, and drove city policy regarding natural areas.
But the VMP when published in 2003 also noted “Citizen stewardship activities in the greenspace have been limited” and “Dump sites, encampments, and social trails are numerous.”
Since then however countless volunteer hours by dedicated neighbors have changed that. Working with the Green Seattle Partnership, EarthCorps, and Parks, invasive species and trash have been removed and Cheasty has begun a remarkable transformation with significant work yet remaining.
Within this group of volunteers some became interested in the possibility of mountain biking in the greenspace. A “Bike Park” – effectively a series of connected, minimally-developed trails – was proposed such that Cheasty would be available as a recreation area as well as help draw more interest in the restoration work the community is performing. The bike park proponents, Friends of Cheasty Greenspace at Mountainview, are the folks responsible for the restoration of Cheasty with walking trails south of Columbian Way. But the bike park would be north of Columbian Way – the larger portion. Part of the $750K proposal is that restoration work of the greenspace is completed, and that the bike trails are added incrementally in a measured way.
This idea when first presented to the Parks and Green Spaces Levy Oversight Committee it was rebuked because it conflicted with Parks’ bicycle policy.
Parks began an update to the bike policy in 2013 (notably not listing Cheasty among the listed “sensitive natural area” that “must be protected” from “increasing use of mountain bikes”). But the Department ultimately asked the Parks Board to not address the policy issue and instead consider a “pilot” mountain bike project in Cheasty.
While it was unclear what exactly the pilot project would entail or what its impacts could be, the Parks Board in January hastily approved a two year pilot project with minimal deliberation.
Subsequently, in April, the Urban Forestry Commission wrote a detailed letter to Mayor Murray and Council’s Parks Committee Chair Godden raising concerns about the pilot project and questioning the lack of public process or consideration of what mountain biking in natural areas meant to wildlife and its habitat let alone to the future of what little remains of Seattle’s natural areas. They suggested limiting the pilot to only a bike path ringing the park with a fence to keep bikes from entering the interior of the greenspace.
Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance has been another proponent of the project. They were instrumental in establishing the mountain bike trails at St Edwards and Finn Hill Parks in Kirkland following a two year public process that explored natural area protections, trail use and other policies. They also designed and built the trails.
Parks has taken an arguably one-sided view of the Cheasty bike park ignoring its own Urban Wildlife and Habitat Management Plan or the Seattle Comprehensive Plan policies inconsistent with its desires (e.g. it cites North Beacon Hill’s request for bike routes but ignores North Rainier’s call for preservation of Cheasty Greenspace and the Urban Village policy to Designate and preserve important natural or ecological features in public ownership as greenspace). And much to the chagrin of the bike park opponents, the public engagement process has been somewhat flawed (promised public meetings have not been held) and the Parks planner is affiliated with Evergreen further giving the impression the fix is in.
More importantly, it is possible that the core complaint about the location of the mountain bike park (in a supposedly protected natural area) and the leap from walking trails to mountain biking as a recreational use with all of its the potential impact (both to the individual area and future areas) is being skirted.
Parks states that the “decision has been made”. SEPA (Washington’s State Environmental Protection Act) requires that the lead agency prepare an impact threshold determination (and possible EIS) “at the earliest possible point in the planning and decision making process, when the principal features of a proposal and its environmental impacts can be reasonably identified”.
We do have a pretty good understanding of what is being proposed, what it takes to build a low impact mountain bike course, and what the impacts have been with other bike parks elsewhere (undeveloped portions of Lower Woodland and Magnusson Park have had mountain bike exposure, and other parks exist), so there is no reason that Parks should not have started environmental review. Instead they wait for the proponents to raise their half million dollars (including a nearly awarded $100K Neighborhood Matching Grant) and present a “formal” plan that will THEN be reviewed. But by that point it is unlikely that there is any turning back.
As Seattle grows and ideas of recreation change, pressure will continue for not only other places for bike paths, but for zip-lines and other newer recreational forms. Bike polo is already replacing tennis at many places in the city. And Parks is investing millions into skate board parks – the popularity of which is without doubt. And all these are competing with existing uses – some of which is no use at all, i.e. greenspaces.
But as the number of people using our parks and variety of uses grows, the City should remain transparent and cautious in how it proceeds. And it should openly engage citizens in the process. After all, no one would want a serious collision.
To help us sort through the various aspects of the Cheasty Greenspace/Mountain Bike issue, we are joined by these knowledgeable panelists:
- Mark Mead – Seattle Parks and Rec, overseeing the Bike Park Pilot
- Jay Gairson – Friends of Cheasty Greenspace at Mountain View, proponent of the Bike Park
- Patricia Naumann – Friends of Cheasty, favors restoration of Cheasty for walking trails
- Ruth Williams – Thornton Creek Alliance. 20 years’ experience as a Forest Steward at Beaver Pond Natural Area on Thornton Creek, Green Seattle Partnership Forest Steward, and a City of Seattle Tree Ambassador.
- John Barber – former Parks Board member
[by Bill Bradburd, July 7, 2014]