Special Reports

A natural wonder

Drew Perine/The News Tribune
Gordon Anderson, 69, makes frequent low-tide visits to Point Defiance Park, where bluffs expose thousands of years of geologic activity. "Nature gives me such a super high," he says.

The Mountaineers tree is the kind of marvel Tacoma residents show out-of-town visitors. At 218 feet tall and nearly 71/2 feet in diameter, the Douglas fir dwarfs its surroundings in Point Defiance Park.

The 450-year-old tree towers on the edge of a centuries-old forest of other big firs, hemlocks and ancient cedars, one of just a few such sea-level stands still alive along the shore of Puget Sound.

“It’s kind of like a museum piece,” said vegetation ecologist Chris Chappell of the state Natural Heritage Program, which tracks and promotes conservation of native ecosystems and rare species.

Most of the park’s 702 acres haven’t been developed, making it an oasis of nature – home to flora and fauna absent elsewhere in the South Sound, where development has destroyed most of the original landscape, Chappell and other experts said.

The peninsula’s nearly vertical bluffs, up to 250 feet tall, expose evidence of tens of thousands of years of geologic activity. The surrounding nutrient-rich waters of the Tacoma Narrows and the Dalco Passage support a wealth of marine life.

Point Defiance Park’s stewards know they care for a regional treasure. But they have left the forest and the Point’s other natural features virtually unheralded and done little to broaden visitor awareness.

Drew Perine/The News Tribune
A sliver of sunlight through the forest canopy illuminates a spider clinging to its web.

Almost nothing in the woods or along the park shoreline is marked to explain its significance. An exception is the Mountaineers tree. The Tacoma Mountaineers club erected the first sign in 1949.

As it celebrates its centennial this year many locals think of the park as a bit of wild in the city, an in-town getaway. But the undeveloped parts of the park are more than open space.

“It’s the most biologically rich property in Tacoma,” said state urban wildlife biologist Michelle Tirhi. And most cities don’t have anything remotely like it.

On a bluff overlooking the Narrows, a rare native plant community includes the state’s largest Pacific madrona, a reddish-barked, broadleaf evergreen.

On the eastern shore of the Point, burrowing clams ordinarily found in coastal waters penetrate the horizontal slabs of sedimentary rock.

Two pairs of bald eagles regularly nest in the forest, which is also home to rare pileated woodpeckers.

The clay banks, where generations of Tacomans have carved their initials, date back more than 46,000 years.

“The park is truly a rare commodity, providing both an outdoor classroom to the public and a biological reserve,” Tirhi wrote in a 2003 letter to a Metro Parks manager.


In 1866, President Andrew Johnson designated Point Defiance as a military reservation, which spared it from the development of early Tacoma. At the start of the 20th century, as others protected natural treasures in national parks, farsighted Tacoma leaders saw value in preserving the city’s gem.

“The timber in this great country is rapidly being cut down … and in a very few years it will be necessary to go long distances … to see this timber in its natural growth,” park board secretary M.L. Clifford wrote Congressman Francis Cushman in 1902, arguing for the federal government to turn over the Point for a city park. “It becomes, therefore, a matter of interest to all the people of the United States to preserve in some place easy of access some tract of land covered in this natural growth.”

Contrary to popular belief, trees have been cut from the forests of Point Defiance. But except for an area near Fort Nisqually, which was logged in the 1930s, not much has been clear-cut, said Metro Parks urban forester Kathy Van Pelt. In other areas, people selectively cut individual trees.

Much of the woods retain a classic old-growth forest structure: centuries-old trees shadowing dense undergrowth. The mossy carcasses of fallen trees and their huge upended root wads feed future forest generations.

“Less than 1 percent of the original forests of the Puget trough lowlands are in old-growth condition. We have that rare situation in Point Defiance Park,” said ecologist Chappell.

Park stewards have allowed dead trees – also called snags – to stand as habitat for pileated woodpeckers and other birds. In most cases, only trees that pose a safety hazard are cut down, Van Pelt said.

Some of the park’s biggest trees are easily accessible from the Spine Trail, which bisects the forest. On a late June morning, sprigs of the creamy white, lilac-shaped flowers of ocean spray hung over the trail entrance.

Soon, trees on the trail created an umbrella-like canopy. Spiders hung webs across the vertical troughs of a gnarly fir trunk. Grayish-green lichens – powdery to the touch – colored the papery bark of an old cedar.

There was no urge to stray off the path. A bushwhacker wouldn’t know where to place her feet.

Tall huckleberry bushes crowded the forest floor. Unripe greenish-red fruit clung to branches bright with tiny serrated-edge leaves.

A pileated woodpecker drummed loudly. Dozens of snags bore evidence of their aggressive carving.

“Half the birds out here you never see. That’s OK, because it tests your ability to hear them,” said Anna Thurston, who leads the South Sound chapter of the Washington Native Plant Society and often walks in the park.

At one point on the trail, the woods opened up to a characteristic old-growth cathedral. Sun filtered through the crowns and bathed a single trunk in light.

Farther on, many young trees, which looked to be hemlock, stood upright – like dog hair, a logger might say.

Near the ground, three little white stems of Indian pipe, a flower that makes no green-pigmented chlorophyll, had emerged from the base of a fir. Also called ghost flower, it’s a saprophyte, a parasite that derives nutrients from trees and fungi.


Near Fort Nisqually, a 25-acre grouping of big madronas, old-growth firs, huckleberries and salal blankets a steep southwest-facing slope overlooking the Narrows.

“People have a tough time telling a Douglas fir from a pine from a hemlock, but they sure know madrona,” Van Pelt said.

This rare association of native plants, still found in only three other places in Washington, has been listed as a state Natural Heritage Site, an honorary citation. Chappell prepared the documentation in 1994.

At the time, he recommended that park stewards erect an interpretive sign to explain the site’s significance, promote its conservation and discourage foot traffic. But there is no sign, so only knowledgeable visitors might be able to find the area.

Even so, Chappell said, the site needs more protection. Despite the sheer grade, hikers have cut several unauthorized beach trails, which cause damaging erosion. “It really looks bad,” he said.

Similar erosion prevention recommendations were made a year ago by GeoEngineers, a group of geotechnical consultants, who suggested development of alternative bluff-to-beach trails that wouldn’t be as risky.

The Narrows bluff madronas stand out in part because of their great size. They include the state’s champion madrona, said Robert Van Pelt, a University of Washington scientist who has photographed and measured the state’s largest trees and wrote a book, “Champion Trees of Washington State.”

Robert Van Pelt first visited Point Defiance around 1987 and found 33 state champion trees, including three national champions.

One of the state record holders, a horse chestnut, has since been removed, said Kathy Van Pelt, who is Robert’s former spouse. Except for the big madrona, all the record-holders are ornamentals planted near the main entrance.

The trunk of the big madrona splits in two a few feet above the ground. Still, Robert Van Pelt puts its diameter at more than 7 feet. The tree’s crown extends 55 feet across.

“You can see it from one of the trails. It’s right on the cliff, literally,” he said. “When you see it from the trail, all you see is the upper part and it doesn’t look all that impressive.” It looks bigger from lower down the slope, he explained.

Drew Perine/The News Tribune
A tiny crab, arms wide in defensive position, prepares to scuttle for the safety of a rock along the shore of Puget Sound near Point Defiance Park.
Drew Perine/The News Tribune
Tom Bush hefts a sea cucumber while diving off Point Defiance Park. He and fellow scuba enthusiast Des Policani, president of the Divers Ecological Society, volunteer for marine cleanup.


The squirrel looked awkward, stretched out museum-style: forelegs pulled forward, rear legs stretched back. Its skin had been stuffed with cotton, making its body thick as a stick of bologna.

How it died is uncertain. But Gary Shugart, collections manager of the Slater Museum of Natural History at the University of Puget Sound, has an idea.

“It looks like a road kill. His skull is crushed,” he said, fingering bones he had removed from a storage vial.

Still, the Western gray squirrel, collected in the park in 1973, was a gorgeous specimen. Its grizzled tail – almost as long as its body at more than 10 inches – was still luxurious and asked to be stroked. Its belly was pure white, its coat hairs gray without a hint of brown.

The squirrel is likely the rarest creature ever collected in the park, experts said. Western gray squirrels are virtually extinct in Western Washington, except on Fort Lewis, and haven’t been seen in Point Defiance in years.

Dennis Paulson, a retired Slater director, recalled seeing Western grays in the park in the 1970s. “I thought it was anomalous at the time. It may have been just a remnant population,” he said.

It might be too late to figure that out now. As it is, no one has inventoried the wild critters that currently live in the park.

Botanists, such as University of Puget Sound professor Betsy Kirkpatrick, have cataloged many of the native plants. Tahoma Audubon Society members keep tabs on the birds. Park neighbors know about the burgeoning population of black-tailed deer and the pesky raccoons.

But it’s harder to identify more secretive critters such as Western gray squirrels. Tirhi, the state wildlife biologist, said there’s a real need for a comprehensive wildlife survey of the park.

Professionals could combine their efforts with others to do the work, she wrote to a park manager. A rapid inventory could save time and money, she added.

Drew Perine/The News Tribune
Not exactly Old Faithful, a piddock clam at the park still puts on a good show with a squirt of water. The bivalves burrow into shoreline rock using corrosive chemical. The creatures - not quite as huge as geoducks - still measure about the size of a fist.

Jack Wilson, Metro Parks executive director, commended the wildlife survey idea. At one point, park officials tried to get a college intern to perform the work, but the arrangement never worked out, he said.

Along with inventorying park species, park officials should do more to engage the public, experts urge.

A 1995 forest management plan prepared by park officials cites the need to enhance public appreciation by adding signs and offering guided nature walks. That has not happened.

Point Defiance Park visitors stare in awe at the big trees, watch eagles soar and contemplate the changing tides. But by and large, how they interpret what they see and hear depends on what they already know.

This is in contrast to national parks and other preserved areas where visitors read explanatory signs and may learn from trained guides.

“I’d love to see interpretive signs out there. I’d love to see well-funded naturalist programs,” said David Secord, a UW marine ecologist. “People tend to protect what they appreciate.”

Wilson said he agrees that environmental education ought to be a core element of what Metro Parks does.

“I think the national park model has value,” he said.

Metro Parks recently finished a plan to put more signs in the park, but the money to erect them could hinge on passage of a proposed $84.3 million bond issue, he said. Some of the signs would feature natural resource information.

Wilson said he’d also like to set up a park ranger program, which could include volunteer naturalists.

Drew Perine/The News Tribune
Generations of visitors to the Point have left their marks along the beach. The clay there is more than 46,000 years old.

Both interpretive signs and an environmental education program are among a long list of improvements to be discussed as part of a new master plan for the park. Work is expected to start on the plan this year.

Although he said Metro Parks’ primary mission is to “preserve and protect” Point Defiance, Wilson acknowledges the park has “a strong ecological story to tell.”


8220;If you keep your eyes open, you see all kinds of things,” Leslie Richardson said.

But if you want to know what you’re looking at, it helps to have knowledgeable guides.

In this instance – a low-tide walk around Point Defiance – Richardson, a Tacoma artist and writer, and Barbara Moeller, a wildlife biologist who works for the Puyallup Tribe, filled the bill.

It was an early spring evening when they headed out from the Boathouse. They hadn’t gone far when Richardson saw a beached jellyfish, a little bigger than a silver dollar, and intervened.

Drew Perine/The News Tribune
Two pairs of bald eagles are known to make their nests in the park.

“You just put a rock under it and go flip,” she said, and successfully returned the medusa to the bay. She repeated the process as she encountered another. “Look, its parachute opened,” she exclaimed.

Secord, the UW marine ecologist, is intimately familiar with the Point Defiance shoreline.

“It’s a very nice urban intertidal habitat,” he said. “We have a lot more biodiversity here than any East Coast city does.”

For example, several dozen varieties of jellyfish make the nearby waters their home. Some are much more dramatic, such as the lion’s mane jellyfish, a brownish orange creature that should be avoided because of its nasty sting, Secord said.

Farther along, Richardson encountered rocks encrusted with sea anemones. “Doesn’t it just make you want to touch one and see it pucker?”

The reason anemones end up in such a pack, Secord said, is that they’re asexual. To reproduce, “they literally pull their bodies apart,” he said. Groups of anemones, called clones, compete for space and fight, using their tentacles as stingers.

On this evening, the beach was almost deserted, but the carved messages and initials in the clay banks show it’s a popular spot for South Sound residents to leave their marks. It’s amazingly soft stuff, this gray clay, coated with what looks like green algae.

The clay is so old – more than 46,000 years – that it can’t be dated by modern methods, according to Mike Valentine, a University of Puget Sound geology professor.

Valentine sometimes takes students out to see the layers of sediment that underlie Point Defiance. The headland was shaped by the last Ice Age, about 15,000 years ago. Layers of rock visible on the cliff face are the result of tens of thousands of years of glacial advance and retreat.

The Sound’s steep sides reflect its glacial origin, he said.

“The whole Puget Sound is basically a fjord of sorts. … Ice scrapes a big trough.”

At high tide, waves slosh against the bottom of the cliffs around Point Defiance. At low tide, people tread carefully as they approach the Point. A horizontal slab of rock near the clay banks can be slippery. It’s also the spot to see one of the park’s most elusive natural wonders: piddock clams.

Only their siphons, about the size of marbles, are visible from the surface. It looks like they have somehow wedged themselves inside the rock. In fact, they have, Secord said.

“Boring bivalves are exactly what they are,” he said. As they grow, they create space for themselves mechanically and by producing a corrosive chemical, he said. “The only way to get them out would be to break open the rock.” He’s not encouraging that.

Though not as big as geoducks, piddock clams are impressive, with shells about the size of a fist and necks 6 to 12 inches long. Piddock clams are typically found along the coast, not inland.

“It’s the nicest population of them I’ve ever seen,” Secord said.

Around the Point, Richardson indicated the spot where young harbor seals sometimes haul out.

On the way back, cliff-dwelling swallows swooped toward home.

Eagles perched on trees near the edge of the bluff, looking for food. A crow pestered one of them.

“You can hear the crow and you can hear the eagle whistling,” Richardson said.

“A lot of times, you’ll hear the eagles before you see them,” added Moeller. She turned to watch the crow attack one of the eagles, a juvenile.

“Oh my God, it took it right over the edge,” she exclaimed. It looked as if the crow had knocked the eagle off its perch. It disappeared.

On the way back to the Boathouse parking lot, a rainbow took shape over Maury Island across Dalco Passage. Richardson called it a “two-eagle day.”

Susan Gordan: 253-597-8756