Resilience according to the IPCC: The ability of a system and its component parts to anticipate, absorb, accommodate, or recover from the effects of a hazardous event in a timely and efficient manner, including through ensuring the preservation, restoration, or improvement of its essential basic structures and functions.
There is a tree a few yards away from my house that stands proud above the rooftops, powerlines, and fragmented urban life below. Every morning I look forward to hearing the tree come alive with a symphony of crows, sparrows, starlings, and steller’s jays collectively singing in what is known as a dawn chorus. I’ve grown increasingly fond of this immense giant, a western redcedar (Thuji plicata) and its inhabitants during this time of solitude. The tree’s important presence in an urban ecosystem that has been manipulated by the pace and patterns of development and growth serves as a reminder that survival, adaptation, and even resilience are possible in an ever-changing urban environment.
The Puget Sound region, where the tree and I live today, has a population of around 4.2 million people. It does not look like the Puget Sound did 80 years ago, or the forests of the Puget Sound that flourished before non-Native settlement hundreds of years ago. We will never be able to restore the environment to what was, but in the face of evolving social, economic, and ecological disturbances exacerbated by climate change we can improve our collective stewardship and ultimately the resilience of our critical urban ecosystems, including our urban forests.
For Seattle, also known as The Emerald City, trees play vital environmental, economic, social, and cultural roles. The western redcedar often the unofficial symbol of the Pacific Northwest, is so deeply rooted in the lives of Pacific Northwest native peoples it is often referred to as the “tree of life.” Tulalip tribal youth, for example, participate in cedar harvests organized by Tulalip Forestry to learn how to weave traditional baskets, headbands, and different items of cultural importance. However, western redcedars, like so many other important trees and native plants, have suffered die-offs in the past few years, often from drought stress and pests that are becoming all more common with the shifting climate.
As projected climate changes become a reality, how do we move forward to create more resilient urban ecosystems and urban forests vital to our health and wellbeing? Urban areas in particular pose significant challenges to ecosystems’ overall health and functionality. Urbanization transforms the natural landscape by fragmenting habitats, decreasing biodiversity, disrupting hydrological systems, altering the local climate, among many other pressures that influence the functionality of the ecosystem and the services it provides for human beings. Resilience in an urban environment, in particular, is a complex, multifaceted challenge that not only requires interdisciplinary collaboration in both research and practice to create innovative sustainability planning strategies, but collaboration with those who interact with the environment the most – the people who live, breathe, and love the urban landscape around them. People like me, who are currently confined to the bounds of rigid house walls, but have found solace in a tree and all the wildlife connected to it.
One such instance of collaboration is the Green Seattle Partnership (GSP), a public-private effort between the City of Seattle, Forterra, schools, community partners, and thousands of volunteers who work together in order to create a healthy network of forested parkland throughout the Seattle area. GSP was developed in 2004 as Seattle’s parks faced critical threats that would prove dire unless restoration efforts were undertaken. The GSP’s 20 year strategic plan focuses on restoring and maintaining over 2,500 acres of forested parklands and other natural areas by galvanizing active community stewardship.
Michael Yadrick, plant ecologist of Seattle Parks and Recreation, coordinates and supports many of these GSP restoration projects. These projects include the removal of certain problematic invasive species, planting trees and understory plants, and constant monitoring. Yadrick explains that in addition to short term solutions, GSP has been thinking long term by working to find species that are more drought tolerant to establish and survive better through changing climates. “Last season we intentionally started sourcing plant material like longer lived conifers- seedlings from further south in Oregon’s Willamette Valley and planted them in Seattle’s forests,” says Yadrick. The 10,000 trees, such as Douglas Fir, western redcedar , Western Hemlock, Western White Pine, that were planted are indeed native species to this region, but the southern genotypes were moved north as a way to transition forests in the Puget Sound region to survive warmer, drier conditions. Similar climate-based seed transfer work is being done in British Columbia as a resilience strategy of a broader Climate-Based Genetic Resource Management initiative.
An hour east of Seattle, The Stossel Creek Site project (which includes 154-acres of land with critical steelhead and salmon habitat) is another example of collaborative adaptive restoration with the hope of improving resiliency of Western Washington forests. The site, whose history is similar to that of many parts of Western Washington, was previously logged and used for commercial forestry. Seattle City Light purchased the land in 2015, and in partnership with Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust, Northwest Natural Resource Group, and Seattle Public Utilities, began restoration efforts to encourage long term ecological functions for water quality with steelhead and salmon in mind. 51 of those acres are being planted with seedlings sourced (with the help of the Seedlot Selection Tool) from areas that have climates similar to the projected future climate of the Stossel Creek area. This includes three different seed sources of Douglas fir, two of western redcedar, species associated with drier Douglas fir ecosystems, such as Shore Pine, Grand Fir, Western White Pine, and Oregon White Oak. Hopefully, increasing tree diversity and planting tree species that are adapted to drier, warmer climates will improve long-term functional stability.
Dan Hintz, Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust Restoration Projects Manager, explains that in thinking about the future it’s also a balance between implementing short term response actions and long term resilience goals. Activities like watering the trees more, adding mulch to help with tree establishment, removal of certain weeds like blackberry and knotweed to reduce competition, all work towards these short term goals and are easier to monitor for improvement. However, Hintz says, “when you’re talking about forest health, in the year 2050 or 2100, that becomes a lot more difficult.” Hintz recognizes the importance of sharing lessons learned and collaborating with other individuals and organizations in such a nascent area of climate adaptation, which is why NNRG, the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust, and other partners held a workshop earlier this year with financial support from the Wildlife Conservation Society.
The Stossel Creek Project and the efforts of Green Seattle Partnership are examples of innovative projects being undertaken with long-term adaptation in mind, but they are also great examples of collaboration – a key ingredient for improving resilience of our forest ecosystems, urban and otherwise. When thinking about resilience it’s important to consider – resilience for whom and by whom? This question is especially important as the future of our ecosystems’ health becomes more complex. As I look to the western redcedar I have a new appreciation of its role in an ever-changing urban environment. The birds singing in its branches may not all be native to the Puget Sound region, but they too are a part of this ever-changing urban environment. The tree may not survive the years to come, but another tree may grow in its place and that is because humans, who are deeply embedded in these changes, are also part of solutions in urban ecosystems and beyond.
The following photo story explores this complexity in Seattle.
Click on the first photo to start the gallery