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Mason Gulch: A hidden paradise

At first glance, Mason Gulch doesn’t look promising.

A handful of steep trails tumble down a jungly slope on the upper end, near the Stevens Street roundabout. Down the waterfront end, the mouth is solidly blocked by a sewage treatment plant.

But there is a way in, along a jagged fence line – and when you discover it, you realize Mason’s inaccessibility has turned this wide gulch into a hidden paradise of native plants, gushing springs and birdsong.

That might all be about to change.

With a 2012 sewer rate increase, the City of Tacoma has about $300,000 per year to maintain open spaces that drain storm water, and has just signed the first of many agreements with Metro Parks to restore the areas for public use.

The parks bond passed in April also adds to the maintenance coffers. After a year developing a management plan for the Schuster slopes near Garfield Gulch, Metro Parks will begin the plan for Mason.

“It’s an awesome opportunity to create access from the neighborhood above to our world-class waterfront down below,” said Joe Brady, natural resources manager at Metro Parks.

For decades the city has had minimal hands-on contact with most of the gulch. The sewage treatment plant was built in the 1960s at its mouth to take advantage of the fast-flowing water of Mason Creek for washing down sewage-treatment tanks.

After that, the land has been mostly left to itself, apart from a once-yearly mowing of the access road and a trimming of the thick tree canopy in the 1990s.

It’s the only North End gulch that has no sewer or storm lines running through it. Plant workers go in a couple of times a year to clear vegetation from catchment ponds, and occasionally dredge the large, crystal-clear stream pond that feeds the catchment on the plant’s southern side before flowing under it out to Commencement Bay.

Other than that, Mason Gulch feels untouched.

The fence line west of the plant – city property – is rough to hike, with low-hanging barbed wire.

As you wander down the broad access path, the grass keeps getting higher, the salmonberries thicker and the quiet more intense. Hawks keen out in the still air high above. Insects buzz and slugs wander undisturbed. The rippling noise of the stream – hidden by undergrowth and impassable – pervades the stillness.

Wider than most other gulches but just as deep, Mason feels like a huge, forested cathedral.

One person who comes here is Dave Clark, a senior operator who grew up in the North End and has worked at the sewer plant for 26 years.

“Nobody else really goes up here,” said Clark, as he unlocked the plant gate and started through the grass. “I never see any kids. There used to be this old guy who came down the track from up on the street and would pick up trash, but I haven’t seen him in a while.”

Now, there’s no trash to pick up – a clue that even teenagers don’t come down this gulch much.

What there is here is urban history.

A cedar stump, burned out in the fires that ravaged the area back in logging days, now is a home for woodpeckers.

Another stump far across the stream bears a smooth, rectangular cut-out used, Clark thinks, by last century’s loggers to slot in a springboard to help them hand-saw logs.

At the end of the path, where brambles make it impossible to find the steep track up to North 37th Street, an abandoned well cap stands amid a field of feathery horsetail like a rusty Roman ruin, with a few mossy tires for effect.

Two rusted metal barrels. A mysterious concrete bunker, now a ferny grotto roofed over by a still-leafy fallen maple. Somewhere by the stream there’s even a car that went over the edge in the 1980s and now is engulfed in vegetation.

And Clark’s special find: an ancient pipe, covered with moss and rust, wedged into the hillside a little way and spouting clear water – one of Mason’s many springs, tapped a hundred years ago.

The cool water tastes unbelievably fresh.

“An old neighbor who worked for the Water Department for over 40 years once told me it served as a drinking water source for the immediate area until the end of World War I,” Clark said.

Also in Mason’s favor is the vegetation.

Despite soaring maples and Mason’s history as a logging site, quite a few conifers remain. Underneath them, the tangle of ivy and blackberry that threaten other gulches are absent. Instead, there are swathes of horsetail and reeds, salmonberry and thimbleberry ripening tart in the sun, Indian plum, red currant, native nettles.

It’s home to deer, raccoons, otters, squirrels, coyote, even (once) a fox – not to mention hundreds of insects and birds.

“(Mason’s) in much better ecological shape than the other gulches,” said Brady of Metro Parks.

This time next year he’ll start asking for community input concerning possible changes to the gulch, including how managed public access might look.

Another possibility Brady sees is nearby Sherman Elementary School using the gulch as a nature-based classroom.

He’ll take into account requests from neighbors such as David Seal, who stresses that locals want views and safe driving sightlines, not “a wall of weeds on steroids.”

Dave Clark, on the other hand, isn’t thrilled about the idea of turning it into a park.

“If you open it up people will bring trash and destroy things,” he said, looking back at the dappled green stillness.

Cutting anything back in the gulch will have to take into account that all of Tacoma’s gulches are listed as unstable slopes according to the state Department of Ecology, and too much clearing can result in landslides.

“We have to balance long-term management and environmental issues with the needs of local neighborhoods and the storm water system,” Brady said. “The goals are not mutually exclusive.”

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