By Karina Mazhukhina | Aug 31, 2015

What was once a bustling sawmill in the late 1800s is now home to more than 100 species of birds, turtles, ducks, and even a beaver family.

I’m talking about Yesler Swamp, one of the few true swamps remaining in Seattle and a unique part of Washington’s vanishing urban forest. It’s hidden in a grove of trees just east of the UW Center for Urban Horticulture, remaining a fairly unknown public area to this day.

Two UW students hope to change that. Back in 2013, Carolyn Foster and Tyler Licata started the Yesler Swamp Project in an effort to increase awareness for critical wildlife habitats along Lake Washington’s shoreline and make the swamp more accessible to the public.

Their hard work is paying off. Since the project first began, over 500 volunteers, ranging from UW students to neighboring communities, have come together to restore and protect the wetland ecosystem. What was once overgrown and impossible to walk through, is now full of native plants and a clean, inviting landscape. 

But, the restoration project is far from over. Every month, Foster and Licata host work parties to maintain the swamp’s landscape and plant new shrubs.

“We’re really trying to use Yesler Swamp as not only a place of teaching people how to complete restoration projects, but also to encourage them how to be stewards of their local land,” said Foster. “We want this to be a really nice public amenity that people can enjoy.”

The process of restoring isn’t without its challenges. Volunteers have removed hundreds of invasive plants, including Himalayan blackberry, English ivy, and morning glory to make room for native ones. Invasive species, when in excessive amounts, can take over an ecosystem and stifle native vegetation from thriving.

“The thing about restoration is that you always have to keep working to preserve the land,” said Foster. “Invasive species keep coming back because their root systems are very intricate, so when you pull things off the surface there are still a lot of things going on underneath the soil.”

Friends of Yesler, a nonprofit group dedicated to preserving the swamp, purchases a majority of the plants for the student-led restoration project. Thanks to them, a boardwalk surrounds the swamp and provides easy access for bird watchers and animal lovers to come and actively engage with the local environment.

The student group only hopes to increase that engagement in coming months. As of spring 2016, there will be a fully constructed bird blind, providing a space for the greater Seattle community to view wildlife. The bird blind will include an 8 ft. by 16 ft. platform with a partially covered roof, bench, and a stand for binoculars. For easy access to the bird blind, the boardwalk that surrounds Yesler Swamp will connect to the platform.

To aid with the process, the student-led group received $12,000 from the Campus Sustainability Fund to kick-start the project. The additional $53,000 will be released once Foster and Licata can secure a building permit to construct a bird blind in the area.  

"We try to be stewards of Yesler Swamp,” said Foster. “We want this to be a community landmark where people have a sense of ownership. It’s not only a place for wildlife, but also a place where you can sit and enjoy the view.”

Yesler Swamp Project