The “Spyder” is used to clear brush on slopes on Magnolia Boulevard. Photo by David Dougherty
The “Spyder” is used to clear brush on slopes on Magnolia Boulevard. Photo by David Dougherty

Magnolia Boulevard is getting long-overdue vegetation management, thanks to the Magnolia Community Club, Friends of Seattle Olmsted Parks and Seattle Parks and Recreation’s interest in bringing the boulevard back to its stature of one of the city’s best promenades.

The longstanding Magnolia Boulevard Vegetation Management Plan (VMP), done in 1998, has only been minimally carried out until last year and this summer, when major work was completed in September. There remain a few things yet to be accomplished by the Urban Forestry Department, which should conclude this fall.

Project ‘synergy’

Parks and Recreation superintendent Christopher Williams, five Parks staff and Magnolia community members David Dougherty and Richard Piacentini walked the Boulevard together in early summer to discuss the uncontrolled invasive plants, view corridors, the dying and ailing madrona trees and the lack of general upkeep.

As the past president of the Magnolia Community Club in 1997, Dougherty brought the issue of the long-under-maintained boulevard to the forefront, and the VMP was the result of that concern. He has been working ever since to see it realized.

Dougherty is one of the original members of the Citizens Action Committee that helped develop the VMP. Piacentini is recording secretary of the Magnolia Community Club and the member working on the issue of maintaining the boulevard. Both serve on the Olmsted board. Both men also reside on the boulevard and serve as park stewards, leading and participating in the community boulevard cleanups.

According to the Friends of Seattle’s Olmsted Parks (FSOP) newsletter of spring 2012: “Concerned about challenges faced by Seattle’s parks during this era of tight budgets, a committee of the FSOP board has been looking into the possibility of developing a trust to support maintenance, restoration and activation of Olmsted parks within the Seattle park system. The committee has decided to pursue two projects. First, volunteers who have been working to renovate Magnolia Boulevard Park need funding and assistance with developing a self-sustaining infrastructure to carry their work forward. The trust will help them raise money and facilitate working relationship between volunteers and Seattle Park’s staff….”

As a result of that recent stroll with community members and the involvement of FSOP, improvements on the Boulevard began in earnest.

“We are excited about the synergy of this project. The different divisions working together and the community commitment created a great outcome. Together, we made remarkable strides in moving the Vegetation Management Plan forward and in honoring this Olmsted boulevard,” Williams said of the work done.

Last summer, under Parks’ Central West maintenance crew, invasive plants were cut back more aggressively, contours in the landscape were added, expanses of new lawn seeding appeared and trees had large, barked beds added underneath.

The contours and lawn add to the passive park uses of walking and playing on the nearly 5 acres, Dougherty pointed out. The larger beds around the madrona trees keep any further damage to bark from happening from lawn mowing, which is believed will keep the few remaining healthy trees less susceptible to disease, according to literature on the best practices for madrona trees.

Mark Mead, certified arborist and director of Urban Forestry in the city, dedicated funds from his budget to bring out a large piece of specialty equipment this summer to do the extensive brush cutting and clearing for views. This machine is designed to clear brush on slopes. As one of the city’s designated 23 viewpoints, the boulevard is scheduled to have a 35- to 65-percent ratio of blocked-to-clear view in the VMP, according to Mead. Dougherty feels they have reached only a 50-50 ratio to date.

Herbicides will be used to kill invasive species in the spring, according to Mead, which is not a usual practice: “We use it only when necessary in very controlled methods, with best-management practices, abiding by all state and city laws and regulations to get us to a situation where we won’t need herbicide [to maintain healthy landscape].”

Saving the trees

Since the 1930s, the boulevard landscape management has been the subject of much controversy, according to historical records: Many residents wanted the trees taken down to open views in front of their property, while others fought to protect the madronas, thinking they were an integral, iconic part of the view.

The boulevard is a steep slope that has regularly slid and threatens Perkins Lane. As such, steep-slope management with proper vegetation is another big landscape issue. Vandals have removed or killed trees, the trees have stood as the backdrop of many television commercials and, in the ‘80s, became the victim of disease and began to die. This disease is a Pacific Coastal phenomenon, Mead said.

“The Pacific madrona (Arbutus menziesii) Pursh is a favorite tree of many Seattle residents. Urban populations 30 years. Fungal pathogens such as Natrassia mangiferae and Phytopthora species are major causes of decline in individual trees. Recent research indicates that a relationship exists between the decline of madrona trees, microclimate, site characteristics and fungal pathogens,” according to the Lincoln Park Vegetation Plan Draft.

The Friends of Discovery Park group started Save Magnolia Madronas (SMM) in the early 1990s to look at the diseased trees and find a cure in the hopes that the trees would survive. This, too, became part of the ongoing VMP discussion.

A study was done on the disease, and initially, there was hope, according to a report done for SMM. But, according to Mead, it was realized that the disease is spreading and can’t be stopped, especially when the madrona, “a finicky tree to begin with,” is no longer in its natural habitat, “covered by an upper story of canopy, like forest, the soil semi-arid and the trees in a groove.”

While he said the Urban Forestry department will protect the few healthy, single trees that are left standing and the only grove left, near West Parkmont Place, he is not hopeful the madronas will be saved. New madronas have been planted three separate times by Parks but to no avail, he reported.

Lack of a watering source and the airborne disease have taken their toll, and the look of the boulevard is changing, concluded Mead.

Dougherty is excited by recent developments, though, and he thinks “we are turning the corner on keeping the boulevard beautiful. The next step may be sitting down with Parks and coming up with a planned annual list of improvements.”

To comment on this story, write to