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Gulches: Taming Tacoma’s last wild places

Down in Tacoma’s gulches, you’re in another world – a wild one.

Deep ravines sandwiched between residential streets and 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 around them, 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 the Garfield and Mason gulches.

Some property owners would like to develop them, with a permit currently applied for in the Buckley gulch.

Other Tacomans want the gulches kept wild – or just don’t know about them.

“Tacoma’s gulches are a unique combination of soil, water and erosion,” says Michael Sullivan, a Tacoma architectural historian who lives near the eastern finger of Buckley gulch.

“Now that we’ve engineered a city, we have to find reconciliation between the natural environment and the built environment. And they conflict often.”

But as well as being unique, the gulches are beautiful.

“It’s like Eden in there,” Sullivan says.

Gulches, sometimes called gullies or ravines, are narrow, deep chasms of land. Deepened by glacial retreat during the last Ice Age, Puget Sound’s gulches were shaped by the many springs and streams that ran through them to the Sound, filling them with forest.

Home to salmon, many were food sources to local native tribes and early settlers.

They also made a perfect site for logging companies, which could cut the trees, send them to the mouth to a saw mill powered by stream-water steam, and float them on the tide to waiting ships.

Some, such as 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, whose invasive yard plants like ivy and blackberry cascaded 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 the gulches remain wild green spaces in the heart of the city – and that’s where the disagreement comes concerning what to do with them.

Over the past 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.

They have cleared invasive greenery, planting native foliage, creating open trails and monitoring wildlife.

Supporters say it’s the kind of turn-around that reduces crime and increases important wildlife 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.

“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,” said Hale, who runs the Old Town neighborhood Block Watch and volunteers at the nearby police substation.

But Tacoma police officer Jennifer Terhaar, the community liaison officer for the patrol section that covers the North End gulches, isn’t as convinced.

Officers occasionally get complaints about homeless encampments and burglars, who use the gulches as escape routes, she said.

“But I don’t know if they knew the gulch was even there to begin with,” Terhaar says. “And we’ve not had any reports of people hiding there to plan criminal activities.”

Terhaar does agree with Hale that the more accessible a place is to the public, the safer it is.

The restoration of Puget Gulch inspired the city’s plans for at least two other gulches.

A 2012 sewer rate increase has given the city’s Environmental Services Division $300,000 a year, of which Metro Parks receives $200,000 to craft management plans for Tacoma’s green spaces, including Garfield and Mason gulches.

The first stage – community talks regarding Schuster Slope, which includes Garfield Gulch – began, with a community open house July 16.

“The long-term goal is turning open spaces into useful areas to improve storm water quality (into Puget Sound) and to give people access,” said Mike Slevin, the city’s environmental services manager. “We want the trail restored and the space used to its full potential.”

Among the things that need to be done in Garfield are large-scale removal of invasive species at a rate that will allow planting and regrowth of natives, access down and along the gulch’s bottom for people and equipment, and a long-term plan to maintain the changes.

But not all locals want the same thing.

Some want privacy, not a hiking trail. Others contend making trails accessible will increase 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. That’s what happened in Garfield gulch (with the Bayside Trail).”

Some think more people using the gulches will hurt the wildlife habitat.

The other big problem is that not all the gulches are public property. For example, more than half of Buckley Gulch, which stretches from North 17th Street beneath Prospect Hill to Old Town, is in private hands – and for each owner, there’s another opinion on what the gulch needs.

“I don’t want people down there,” says Rick Rosenblatt, who owns a large chunk of Buckley along with his siblings. “It’s for the critters.”

Some grew up playing in the gulch and want the same for their own kids. Others, such as Jeffrey McInnis, who’s waiting on a development permit near West Road, want to build more houses in them.

“The more people we can get living in there, (the more) it’ll improve,” says McInnis.

About the only thing everyone agrees on is that Tacoma’s gulches is that they’are beautiful.

“They’re little gems,” Slevin says.

Deep down, far removed from the sounds of everyday life, they’re a little bit of wilderness still inside the city: cool, green places where visitors can pick salmon berries or explore boggy streams.

Many cities – Seattle among them – have filled their gulches. Tacoma’s remain. The question is what to do with them.

“Tacoma’s gulches are a hidden wilderness that is going to waste, and threatened,” said Robert Girvin, a neighbor and longtime habitat steward for Garfield Gulch. “Green spaces are proven to be essential for air quality, and 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.

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