Standing on the edge of North Beacon Hill, just above the Jose Rizal bridge, you can see two distinct landscapes. To the west lies the shimmering Puget Sound, an expanse of green islands over blue water. To the east, two massive cables of I-90 stretch under the Mount Baker neighborhood and beyond, winding through the Cascades and across the state.
These are the two landscapes tied together by the Mountains to Sound Greenway. Here at Dr. Jose Rizal Park on Beacon Hill, one of the last key links of the greenway is approaching completion with the Seattle Department of Transportation leading the work.
“Nothing has been quite as tricky as working in this spot,” said Erin MacCoy, communications manager of Mountains to Sound Greenway. At only about a half-mile long, it's a small stretch out of the overall 130 mile-long greenway, but it's involved some of the nonprofit's most difficult negotiations thus far.
“This is a pretty significant one to be able to get all the way to the Sound,” she explained referring to the symbolic connection of miles of trail meeting the waterfront, allowing the nonprofit's path to live up to its name.
To connect these landscapes — the conservation zones and the logging areas, the rural towns and the urban core — the Mountains to Sound Greenway engaged individuals and groups as diverse as the landscape it hopes to protect, including developers, the Sierra Club, corporate CEOs, and government agencies. The greenway's ability to unify the landscape is second only to its ability to unify people.
“I'm involved in a lot of volunteer groups, and if I had to give them all up but one, the one I'd keep is the greenway,” said Louis Musso. “They bring really diverse opinions to consensus.” Musso is vice president for Kittitas County for the organization's board. A resident of Cle Elum, he is politically conservative and pro-development. He describes himself as one of the few active Republicans who is involved with the greenway.
The Mountains to Sound Greenway originated in 1990 out of concern that increasing development would create a corridor of unchecked sprawl along I-90. While the organization itself owns no land, it encompasses 1.5 million acres of “connected natural lands and vibrant urban areas surrounding I-90 between Puget Sound and Central Washington.” Its boundaries are the watersheds of King and Kittitas counties. The various trails making up the greenway run from the Ellensburg area to Seattle.
“The value of the greenway is that it can be home to all of those,” said Charlie Raines, another board member, referring to the variety of individuals involved, “The challenge is to not be so broad that you can't get anything done.” Raines lives in Seattle where he works for the Sierra Club and Cascade Land Conservancy. He says the greenway creates an opportunity to “look at a broader landscape,” politically and geographically.
If you've ever bicycled across the I-90 bridge, you've been on the Mountains to Sound Greenway. If you've ever climbed Little Mount Si, you've been on the greenway. If you've picnicked in Marymoor Park, walked through the Snoqualmie Tunnel, or boated on Cle Elum lake, you've been on the Mountains to Sound Greenway. So what exactly does the greenway do?
“In a very real sense, there is no greenway,” said Musso, “There's no acreage. It's all an attitude and way of brokering things.” Musso says he knows developers who have gone to the greenway for suggestions as part of their planning process.
On a regular basis, greenway crews do trail maintenance and restoration work, removing invasive plants. They promote tourism by listing festivals and events around King and Kittitas Counties. But most significantly, they deal with land, by raising money to buy property that will be owned and managed by other conservation groups and government agencies.
At a time when government politics are more factionalized than ever before, when parties routinely try drive wedges into their opponents' programs, it's amazing that both sides of the political aisle can meet on the greenway's goals.
Musso of Cle Elum said, “We're not being threatened by big urban development. We kind of have the mirror image problem of King County.” In order to help stimulate growth in Kittitas County, the greenway has been supportive of Suncadia, a 6,400-acre luxury mountain resort in the town. The group also worked on the Coal Mines trail, and are involved in the Cle Elum parks and recreation district.
Here on Beacon Hill in Jose Rizal park, they're working near a dense green-space nicknamed "the Jungle." Extending along the sloping west edge of Beacon Hill above I-5, the area has a reputation for drug use and violence, and contains more than a few homeless encampments. A 12-foot wide pavement trail is being constructed connecting the I-90 bike trail to the city streets. It will eventually run to Beacon Avenue South, go west on Holgate, and end on the waterfront trail. On this particular stretch, Mountains to Sound Greenway is working with Seattle Department of Transportation and Seattle Parks and Recreation.
Seattle transportation spokesman Rick Sheridan said work should be done in mid or late October. There had been plans to finish this month, but work on lighting for trail has been delayed. The lighting and landscaping are designed to provide security for trail users and a sense of openness and visibility.
For now, the “Seattle Gap” on Beacon Hill remains a construction site. SDOT backhoes have munched the underbrush and crews in orange jerseys have cleared the trail's edge next to the years-old graffiti. Soon, though, the trail through Dr. Jose Rizal Park will be finished, another bridge across Washington.