Down in Tacoma’s gulches, you’re in another world – a wild one. Deep ravines sandwiched between residential streets, fed by springs flowing to Puget Sound, the gulches are filled with tangled forests and moss, with deer, coyote and birdsong. Thanks to 150 years of urban settlement, you’ll also find trash and sewer lines, blackberries and ivy, drug users and the homeless – as well as trails and restored habitat.
Some people want to tame Tacoma’s gulches, with city plans on the table to restore Garfield and Mason. Some property owners intend to develop there. But other Tacomans want them gulches kept wild – or just don’t know about them. Each gulch tells its own story – if you start to explore.
“Tacoma’s gulches are a unique combination of soil, water and erosion,” explains Michael Sullivan, an architectural historian who lives near the eastern finger of Buckley gulch. "It’s like Eden in there."
Gulches, sometimes called gullies or ravines, are narrow, deep chasms. Deepened by glacial retreat, Puget Sound’s gulches were shaped by the many springs and streams that ran through them to the Sound. With forest and salmon creeks, many were food sources to local tribes and early settlers.
Inside the gulch (scroll to read on)
They also made a perfect site for logging companies, which could cut the trees, send them down to the mouth to a sawmill powered by stream-water steam, and float them out on the tide to waiting ships. Some, like Gallagher’s Gulch downtown, made perfect routes for trains and cars, or were filled in for development.
Meanwhile houses grew up around the edges of the gulches, with invasive yard plants like ivy and blackberry cascading down to further disrupt gulch ecology. Steep and hard to maintain, the gulches became places to hide for transients, prostitutes, drug users and criminals.
Yet Tacoma’s gulches remain wild green spaces in the heart of the city – and that’s where the disagreement comes on what to do with them. Over the last 20 years citizen volunteers, non-profit environmental groups, Metro Parks and the city – which owns most of Puget, Garfield and Mason gulches – have collaborated to restore gulches such as Puget and Julia’s Gulch, clearing invasives, planting natives, creating open trails and monitoring wildlife. It’s the kind of turn-around that supporters say reduces crime and increases important habitat for birds, deer, salmon, coyote and more.
“When you see people jogging alone or walking with strollers and dogs you know you are on the right track,” says Steve Hale, who lives between Buckley and Garfield gulches, runs the Old Town neighborhood block watch and volunteers at the local police substation. “I have no doubt that some of our petty and not so petty crime is committed by people who use the open spaces as cover and concealment.”
But community liaison police officer Jennifer Terhaar isn’t as convinced: "We’ve not had any reports of people hiding there to plan criminal activities," she says.
Puget Gulch is, in fact, the inspiration for current city plans for at least two other gulches. A 2012 sewer rate increase has given the city’s Environmental Services division an extra $300,000 a year; they’ll pay Metro Parks $200,000 to create management plans for Tacoma’s green spaces, including Garfield and Mason gulches. The first stage – community talks about Schuster Slope, which includes Garfield – has already begun.
“The long-term goal is turning open spaces into useful areas to improve stormwater quality and to give people access,” says Mike Slevin, the city’s environmental services manager. “We want the trail restored and the space used to its full potential.”
But not all locals want the same thing. Some want privacy, not a hiking trail. Others contend making trails accessible just increases the homeless population, which the city clears out from most gulches every few months.
"I wouldn’t want a trail – I’d like to leave it as it is," says Bill Blazak, who lives on Buckley gulch and has reported numerous homeless encampments under the 21st Street bridge. "If you open a trail you just make it easy for those kind of people to use it."
Some think more people using the gulches will hurt wildlife like deer and overwintering birds.
"I don’t want people down there," says Rick Rosenblatt, who owns a large chunk of Buckley with his siblings. "It’s for the critters."
The other big problem is that not all the gulches are public property. Over half of Buckley Gulch, from North 17th Street down beneath Prospect Hill, is in private hands – and for each owner, there’s another opinion on what the gulch needs. Some grew up playing there and want the same for their own kids. Others, like Jeffrey McInnis on West Road, intend to build houses in them.
"The more people...living in there, (the more) it’ll improve," says McInnis.
About the only thing everyone agrees on about Tacoma’s gulches is that they’re beautiful.
"They’re little gems," Slevin says.
Deep down, far removed from everyday life, they’re a little bit of wilderness still here inside a city: cool, green places where you can pick salmonberries or explore boggy streams.
Many cities – Seattle among them – have filled their gulches. Tacoma's remain. The quesiton is what to do with them.
“Tacoma’s gulches are a hidden wilderness that is going to waste, and threatened,” says Robert Girvin, Garfield's habitat steward. “Green spaces are proven to be essential for...quality of life.”
Renee Paine, who lives on the edge of Buckley Gulch, agrees: “It’s a beautiful place that makes Tacoma livable,” she says.
Text, photos, video and design by Rosemary Ponnekanti
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