When two Mormon missionaries walked into a cul-de-sac nestled against Beacon Hill last summer and approached the spry thirtysomething standing in his yard next to his Mercury Mariner Hybrid, they had no idea they were about to meet their match.
“They told me they were all about community,” Joel DeJong remembers. “So that’s when I introduced the Cheasty project.”
The missionaries, who had come not only to find community service opportunities but to “share a little bit about our message,” quickly fell under DeJong’s spell. They’re now converts, regular volunteers moving rocks and clearing trails for DeJong’s cause: transforming two greenbelts—10-acre Mountain View, which abuts DeJong’s house, and the larger Cheasty Greenspace—from a formidable 43-acre Forbidden Forest into a network of trails.
His ultimate objective is to turn the disjointed neighborhoods around the greenbelts into one connected community. Thousands of volunteers have worked on Mountain View since 2007 to turn a space formerly filled with walls of ivy, garbage, and homeless tents into a Shangri-La of wood stair climbs, gravel walkways, and carved benches.
DeJong’s group, Friends of Cheasty Greenspace at Mountain View, is now working on its followup act, the larger Cheasty project to the north. It has already clocked more than 5,000 volunteer hours since 2014, clearing out invasive species and planting native plants, trees, and shrubs. The Cheasty plan adds a mountain bike trail to the mix, inspiring the parks department to reassess its decades-old policy that only allows “low impact” uses in its 1,500 acres of natural areas and green spaces.
“Old notions of habitat that have high-level restrictions on use and public access really work against long-term sustainability goals,” says Thatcher Bailey, the head of the Seattle Parks Foundation. “Recreation and stewardship go hand in hand.”
But there are competing green Seattle values at play. While groups like the parks foundation support DeJong, other environmentalists want the habitat and wetlands left alone. “Why does managing for wildlife, passive use, and scenic landscape need revision? Why now?” asks Denise Dahn, codirector of the Seattle Nature Alliance.
DeJong, 38, stood at the top of Cheasty in knee-high rubber boots and a goofy Department of Parks and Recreation windbreaker. He’d just bushwhacked his way up the hill with me in tow. And with the earnest charisma he’s used to get everyone from the Mormons to UW students to Starbucks on board, he stopped to hype the benefit of bringing trails to the neighborhood: Kids who live at the foot of Beacon Hill in Rainier Vista, he says, will be able to walk up the hill to Kimball Elementary rather than along precarious Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. In addition to making the trip to school safer, sending kids into the woods will “provide an ecoliteracy of sorts…we’re competing with video games.”
The parks board voted to support the pilot project back in January 2014. Parks board commissioner Brice Maryman says: “In a dense mixed-use city we need to keep our eyes open for opportunities [for] mixed-use open spaces that invite more people into our parks and give access to nearby nature.”
The opponents of revamping Cheasty, though, are just as persuasive as DeJong. Last August, when the project was up for an official Department of Neighborhoods grant, a more traditional brand of environmentalists convinced city council to freeze the key $100,000. One of the neighbors who showed up with “Save Cheasty” signs told the council that the city’s greenbelts need to be “preserved for posterity, not used for the desires of the moment.”
City council neighborhood committee chair Sally Bagshaw thanked DeJong’s crew for all their work (like the time a Boy Scout troop hauled out a cache of plastic bottles filled with urine they’d discovered buried near the wetlands). But instead of green-lighting the grant along with the 11 other neighborhood projects, council froze the Cheasty money. The council passed an ordinance saying the parks department had to first review the project to make sure it adhered to the city’s “low impact” policy.
“I just find it ridiculous that people want to do the things that are meant for the suburbs in the city!” a project opponent wrote on a heated listserv thread in February. (“I’m an environmentalist, so I don’t want to move to the suburbs,” came the rejoinder from a supporter at a public meeting the next day.)
Dahn, codirector of the Seattle Nature Alliance sums up the opponents’ central argument: “Only a tiny percent of Seattle’s total land mass remains as forests, wetlands, or other natural areas. The use of these irreplaceable remnants must be low impact and sustainable over the long term, especially considering Seattle’s exploding population.”
Framing DeJong (the general manager at a bike manufacturer) as a member of a special interest group, Dahn concludes: “The only sustainable way to use a limited resource like natural areas while allowing for the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people is to reserve them for passive use. Natural areas should be for all people, not all user groups.”
The council’s freeze hasn’t stopped DeJong. Optimistic council members will free the money when they make a final decision in May, DeJong, who says Seattle’s growing population is precisely why green spaces need to be more accessible, has already lined up a $30,000 grant from REI.
A pair of pictures on his iPhone catalogs the success of his bimonthly volunteer work parties. One has the word “gross” superimposed over a snapshot of standing water with garbage that leached into the Cheasty wetland. Scroll to the next picture and “not gross” is written over a photo of a trillium plant in the Mountain View space—“a plant we’ve seen flourish with the removal of invasives,” DeJong says proudly.
DeJong sees Mountain View—former home of invasive species that were choking trees, blocking light, shrouding prostitution, and serving as cover for a neighborhood dump and fleeing criminals—as proof that Cheasty must go forward too. “This was the number two place,” he claims gesturing to the foot of Mountain View just outside his front door, “to park your stolen car and run.”
Seattle Nature Alliance’s Dahn says scare tactics about crime are misleading. “A city that cares about nature and people,” she says, “will not blame forests for homelessness or drug use.”
DeJong thinks the city should address homelessness directly too, but that doesn’t mean social problems should be hidden in the forest. Referring to a pair of tents in Cheasty we passed, he says, “People should be able to enjoy the forest, but not just two people.”
If the trillium at Mountain View is the model for Cheasty, then the planned combination pedestrian and bike trail at Cheasty may be a model for the whole city. Acting parks department superintendent Christopher Williams acknowledges Cheasty has forced the city to begin reassessing greenbelt policy and says the department has already begun the decision-making process for future uses of green spaces.
On the Monday afternoon I joined DeJong for a tour, a guy in a backpack and tie huffed up the Mountain View steps on his way home, taking this new direct route from the Columbia City light rail to his neighborhood on top of the hill.
DeJong nodded to his neighbor. “They didn’t even know this forest was here before.”
This article appeared in the April 2015 issue of Seattle Met magazine.