Union Bay Natural Area

Learning from a Landfill

Seattle’s Union Bay Natural Area (UBNA) lies along Lake Washington between the UW’s foot­ball stadium, a golf driving range, and acres of surface parking — an incongruous space for one of the city’s urban ecosystems and large public green spaces. The approximately 73-acre mo­saic of forest, scrub-shrub, grassland, and wetlands is built upon the former Montlake Landfill, which lay fallow for decades after being closed in the 1960s.  Historically, the riparian systems of Yesler Creek, Kincaid Ravine, and Ravenna Creek converged at what is now UBNA, and the flows of their substantial combined watershed created the delta upon which it sits.  

When the UW’s Center for Urban Horticulture was created in 1983, the landfill was envisioned as a potential model for natural area restoration that would enhance the center’s focus on UW teaching, research, and public outreach.  Now, more than a quarter century later, UBNA, part of the UW Botanic Gardens, has become such a model; years of restoration work have resulted in a diverse landscape of meadows, woods, and wetlands. Thirty-five restoration projects have been completed, and over 1,500 students have been trained in restoration ecology through the UW’s Restoration Ecology Network (UW-REN), a program that involves all three UW campuses and has been recognized by the journal Science and the Society for Ecological Restoration International (SER).  The restored site provides many ecological services, including natural storm water regulation, biodiversity preservation, reduction of pathogens and pollutants, recreational opportunities, and aesthetic value. A trail network now links the restoration projects within UBNA, and the site is considered one of the best bird-watching areas in Seattle, with sightings of over 200 species.

SFR Professor Kern Ewing, a UW-REN director, was recently awarded the UW’s S. Sterling Munro Public Service Teaching Award for his years of leadership and involvement in UW-REN.  He has researched and taught plant and restoration ecology in UBNA since the early 1990s, conducting experimental trials of self-generating processes that allow for establishment of native vegetation and help suppress invasive species. These processes include tweaking microclimates and soil moisture with the use of earthen mounds and sheet mulch. Blue plastic tubes are used to protect tree seedlings from rodents and summer droughts, sometimes giving newly-planted parts of UBNA the aspect of a “blue tube forest.”  Says Ewing, “A decade ago, only intrepid visitors would venture down the path through the ‘tunnel of blackberries’ connecting the neighborhood of Laurelhurst and the UW Botanic Gardens with the sports fields north of Husky Stadium. Now some trees are reaching overhead, providing habitat for the many species of birds and wildlife that visit the site.”

Nate Hough-Snee, SFR restoration ecology graduate student, and Justin Howell (’09), a program graduate, noted the educational value of the site in a recent article they published in the SER News: “Restoration proj­ects at UBNA are commonly collaborations among UW restoration ecology students and faculty. By linking the hands-on adaptive management of UBNA to ecology and design theory, students from across academic disciplines get an opportunity to apply ecological and res­toration concepts as they design, build, and install eco­logical restoration projects. These experiences are ‘multiplier’ opportunities in which every UBNA restoration project is valued not only for its ecologi­cal merit, but also for the educational experience offered to restoration students who will then go on to apply their knowledge elsewhere in the world.”*

Examples of the diverse field experiences that abound in UBNA have included a wildlife science research project on nutria, a bucktoothed rodent that has become an invasive pest in parts of the U.S. and has the capacity to destroy acres of wetlands.  Nutria, semi-aquatic and often mistaken for beavers or muskrats, have appeared at UBNA, where they flatten out grass and cattails as they travel from the water to graze on the lakeshore.  The SFR undergraduate project tracked nutria in UBNA, observing what they ate and monitoring their population. In another example, an Introduction to Restoration Ecology class taught by SFR Assistant Professor Jon Bakker incorporated ecological restoration with public art. The class worked with UW Bothell Lecturer Amy Lambert (’06) to create environmental art from Himalayan blackberry canes that had been removed from UBNA. "Students were exposed to the possibilities of combining restoration activities with art," Bakker says. "We cleared a blackberry patch but, rather than hauling the blackberry canes away, they were left on the site as a visible sign to passers-by that something had happened here. Finally, we gave students a challenging situation — thorny blackberries with a minimal number of tools — and asked them to work together to accomplish a larger task."  Another project on the site was the planting of the Centennial Grove in 2007, a gift from alumni in recognition of SFR’s 100-year history of academic excellence, research, and leadership in sustainable natural resource management. Work parties of alumni, faculty, staff, and students continue to volunteer their time to maintain the grove.

 Hough-Snee and Howell are grateful for their opportunites to do work at UBNA.  “The Union Bay Natura Area," they say, “shares a unique history with the teaching and practice of ecological restoration at the UW. From an intact ecosystem to a waste repository to an outdoor laboratory, UBNA has changed dramatically and will undoubtedly continue to do so over time. Goals for the site include monitoring vegetation communities to assess how succession proceeds within systems, studying how subsidence alters hydrology across the landscape, and continuing to adaptively manage existing restoration projects to ensure their success. Most importantly, UBNA will remain a free and public gateway to ecologi­cal restoration for visitors, and will continue to train and in­spire future generations of restoration ecologists and practitioners.”*

*Parts of this article appeared in "Learning from a Landfill: ecological restoration and education at Seattle’s Union Bay Natural Area,” by Justin Howell and Nate Hough-Snee, SERNews (23:2).


Removing invasive blackberries from the Union Bay Natural Area. Photo: Ramona Hickey.


The Union Bay Natural Area is a diverse landscape of meadows, woods, and wetlands providing habitat for many species of birds and other wildlife.