Garfield Gulch: A tangled, fragile beauty

As Rob Girvin stumped along the upper trail in Garfield Gulch, he never stopped working.

He pointed out an eagle’s nest, high in one of the last cedars, lopped off some blackberries and scanned tiny seedlings for signs of damage.

Then he sighed and bent to pick up a dirty vodka bottle, upending it with a grimace.

“Empty,” he said.

It could be a metaphor for the gulch itself — logged, filled and blocked, dumped on, ignored by city and residents alike, hiked only by the homeless and Girvin himself as he devotes countless hours to his work as a volunteer habitat steward.

Yet in its tangle of cascading vines, creeping ivy and blackberry is a wild beauty that keeps people like Girvin from giving up hope.

Of all of Tacoma’s North End gulches, Garfield is possibly the most ecologically fragile.

“Garfield Gulch is in pretty rough ecological shape,” said Joe Brady, natural resources manager at Metro Parks.

Nevertheless, it promises a future sanctuary, if a new city partnership achieves its goals.

The gulch is part of the first area targeted for open-space management under a new agreement between the city, which owns much of Tacoma’s gulches, and the parks organization.

Thanks to a stormwater tax rate increase in 2012, there’s now $300,000 per year in the city budget to better manage open spaces for stormwater filtering and public access. Two-thirds of the spending will go to Metro Parks, which also has some recently passed bond money, to create management plans like those for places such as Wapato Park and Julia’s Gulch on Brown’s Point.

First on the list: the Stadium-Schuster greenbelt, which spills midway into Garfield Gulch.

The area comes with a lot of historic baggage.

“This whole gulch once stretched up to Tacoma General (Hospital),” said Girvin, standing at the head of the forested gulch, bordering Garfield Park on Borough Road.

It’s the only section left of what once was a long, deep ravine filled with evergreens and a flowing stream.

When the Tacoma Sawmill Co. — then the largest in the world — started in 1868, it had in Garfield the perfect location to hew prime fir trees, roll them down the gulch, mill them and float them out to ships on the tide.

As the trees were cleared, streets were platted, and bridges were built over the gulch on log-edged fill. Eventually more of the gulch was filled and covered with roads and houses — still traceable as the slight dip where North Seventh Street ought to be.

The middle section was drained and built over by the Tacoma Lawn Tennis Club and playfield. What’s left is the deepest, steepest part — and that’s both the beauty and the problem.

“I hope you’re wearing good boots,” warned Girvin, who offered a hiking stick.

You need them.

Leaving the park on the northern side is a gravel jogging trail, cleared and sunny, leading down to Park Drive. Girvin and his teams of volunteers rescued it from a brambled mess harboring prostitutes and hobos.

But this isn’t the trail to the gulch. That track drops off to the right, down a slippery slope to the muddy stream bed 70 feet below.

Visitors slosh through wetland, balance-walk fallen tree trunks, clamber over branches and duck blackberries.

Of all the gulches, Garfield is the most tangled — a victim of urban settlement.

“All but three of the fir trees were cut down,” Girvin said. “And then people brought in English ivy and blackberry for landscaping. It was a perfect storm for invasion.”

The problem is cyclical.

Ivy grows well in shade, creating a blanket that smothers any young native trees. It grows up mature trunks, which get top-heavy and eventually fall in storms. This opens up the forest to bright sun — where blackberry loves to grow and smother saplings.

Then add in a type of clematis vine that grows fast in sun or shade, clinging and covering trunks and undergrowth like a jungle, plus some deadly nightshade on the stream bed.

Finally, on the upper slopes, are patches of philodendron, forget-me-not, knotweed and other ornamentals, thanks to residents who tip yard waste over the side — a cascade of invasion.

“Tacoma’s gulches are a hidden wilderness that is going to waste and threatened,” Girvin said.

He’s been restoring Garfield for more than a decade, first as a father-son project planting fir trees and mounting birdhouses, then more officially with the Green Tacoma Partnership and finally as a habitat steward overseen by Metro Parks.

He leads four work parties a year, clearing invasives and planting natives he buys himself from nursery sales. He spends most of his free time watering, pruning and replanting saplings lopped by vandals.

One thing he can’t do is restore the foot of the gulch — it’s too steep.

Along that foot, signs of human existence come into view: a dead-branch compost heap made by the Washington Conservation Corps, concrete sewer caps, a cascading waterfall from a storm drain, hollows made by the homeless.

Garfield doesn’t feel as remote as other gulches — you can always hear the yells of playing children at Annie Wright School just up above, lawn mowers from the expensive homes lining the slopes, or traffic from Schuster Parkway and the railway line not far ahead.

Still, it feels wild, with the only footprints those of deer.

As the stream flattens out and Commencement Bay comes into distant view, a different piece of urban archeology emerges: a 6-foot-tall wooden pole, carved in the middle.

More dot the upper eastside track.

They’re markers for the Bayside Trail — one of the biggest impediments, along with the steep slope, to restoring Garfield.

State-funded in the 1970s, the Bayside Trail sounded like a good idea to begin with: a walking trail that ran from Dock Street downtown, along the Stadium bluff and up into Garfield Gulch before turning around to the waterfront.

It didn’t work. Hikers realized halfway along that they were tired from the climb and began wandering through Stadium Way driveways to find a way back.

Officials realized that helping anyone who got hurt halfway could be hard. Kids started fires in there. And homeless people realized it was a handy commute from downtown to a forested living space.

The trail was closed and not maintained.

Now, because of the new city-Metro Parks partnership, it’s up for discussion again.

“The long-term goal is turning open spaces into useful areas to improve stormwater quality (into Puget Sound) and to give people access,” said Mike Slevin, the city’s environmental services manager.

If Metro Parks were to restore the gulch, that would include large-scale removal of invasive species and planting natives, creating safe access down the slope for workers, hikers and equipment, creating a walkable trail along the wetland-filled foot of the gulch, and ongoing maintenance.

Says Slevin: “We want the trail restored and the space used to its full potential.”

Not all locals want the same thing, though.

Girvin, who lives on Borough Road, said the folks whose properties back onto the bluff trail think opening it up will just turn it into a thoroughfare for transients and trespassers.

Others would appreciate the waterfront access.

“If you could clean up this section of the trail, it would make it more accessible,” said Sandy Zacek, whose home backs onto the gulch but who hasn’t walked her dogs there for a while because of fallen trees and limited sightlines.

“I really enjoy the trail on the other side that Rob has taken care of.”

“There’s always going to be the opportunity for people to do bad activity or just looking for a place to sleep,” said Colin DeForrest, the city’s homeless services manager.

His crews cleaned up homeless camps six times in the last year in Garfield and more along the Bayside Trail.

“But you’re not going to be setting up a camp if every day you have this mom and her kids and dog coming along. I would always argue for opening up (the gulches.)”

With the Garfield/Schuster management plan only just beginning, it’ll take awhile to see any changes in the gulch.

Joe Brady, natural resources manager at Metro Parks, estimates work might begin in five years, while Slevin sees the project as a 20-year effort.

The first practical step would be putting a boardwalk down at the bottom to allow major removal of invasives — a big job.

It’s worth the effort, say those who care about Garfield.

“Tacoma’s gulches provide more dense space for overwintering birds that wouldn’t breed in residential neighborhoods,” said Audubon Society president Art Young, who birds in Garfield and Puget gulches and has seen dozens of species in each. “They’re a necessary chunk of continuous habitat.”

“The gulches are little gems,” added Slevin.

Meanwhile, Girvin will keep working in Garfield until something bigger happens.

“There’s so much potential here,” he said. “When I look at what they did in Puget Gulch, it’s beautiful. Maybe in 20 years we can have something like that.”

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