Seattle Parks Volunteer Naturalists meet the Duwamish River Valley

Seattle Volunteer Naturalists Kevin Tsui, Patty North, Chris Hoffer, Mary Kay Sykes and Karl Seng watch a trio of osprey circle over the Duwamish River in search of prey.


Long known as an industrial area, Seattle’s Duwamish River Valley is also a great place to learn about nature.

The valley is home to Seattle’s only river, the cultural center of Seattle’s first people and a landscape of river bends, industrial areas, fishing communities and rare birds that truly represent urban nature at its most threatened and most resilient.

In 2014, Seattle Parks and Recreation’s Environmental Learning Centers (ELCs) began to work in partnership with Duwamish River Valley communities to create environmental education opportunities in the Duwamish River Valley. In order to accomplish this, ELC staff have begun to build their capacity of volunteers and develop meaningful partnerships with Duwamish Valley communities.

Building volunteer capacity

On Sunday, May 18, ELC staff hosted Meet the Duwamish River Valley, a continuing education session to introduce 10 of their most committed volunteers to some of the unique parklands, habitats and communities of the valley. These Seattle Volunteer Naturalists spent the day on the river in order to educate the public about ecology and community in the Duwamish River Valley.

Penny Rose, a Public Education Program Specialist with the ELCs, kicked off the day by telling the group how she had been inspired by the irrepressible beauty of the river and its wildlife.

“I used to ride my bike along this trail, through this industrial corridor, and I kept seeing some amazing and unique birds every time I’d pass through,” Rose said. “It took me a while to make my way to one of our parks along the river to see what a special place this really is. And that’s my goal with our work in the Duwamish River Valley—that we can show others who live in the city how truly important the river is to wildlife and to people.”

With the Duwamish River below, Public Education Specialist Penny Rose scopes out a peregrine falcon alongside Seattle Volunteer Naturalists.


Nature in action

Volunteers explored the restored salmon habitat at the heart of Herring’s House Park, the historical home to one of the area’s older Duwamish tribal villages, which provides respite for young salmon making their transition from fresh water to salt water as they move down river. During their visit, a red-tailed hawk made its way toward the river from its nest in Puget Park—only to be chased off again by a pair of agitated crows.

At the mouth of the river, the volunteers watched in wonder as a peregrine falcon—one of a pair that nests and rears its young every year on the underside of the West Seattle Bridge—snatched a starling out of the air for a meal.

Sharon Leishman, coordinator of the Duwamish Alive Coalition, told the volunteers why the river is so special to her.

“All of Seattle’s history and culture can be found right here,” she said. “It’s the home of our native people and the site of changes in the landscape by European settlers. It saw the growth of industry and pollution, and is now seeing our attempt to restore the natural environment. And, it is home to some of our most diverse neighborhoods.”

With towering cranes in the background, seals sunned themselves on floating buoys as giant barges rolled past. In the fall, salmon will pass through and be caught by tribal fishers, and hundreds of volunteers will spend thousands of hours restoring riverbanks.

“The Duwamish River Valley is such a rich place to do environmental education,” Naturalist Justin Hellier said. “We are able to see some amazing wildlife, but also some incredible community organizing for a cleaner river. We are able to look at how our economic systems interact with our ecological systems, and how these affect our communities. This river allows us to think about the really big questions of our day—how we live on the land, and how we treat each other.”

New community partnerships

The ELC staff work on the river has focused on developing and deepening partnerships with community groups and organizations that call the Duwamish Valley home.

Recently, the Naturalists have collaborated on programming with the Duwamish Tribe to provide environmental education at the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center. They are excited by their initial foray into the program—an event exploring Duwamish River birds attracted 34 people out on a recent Friday afternoon, and an event on the river’s geology brought out more than 100.

In addition, the Naturalists have begun conversations with the Duwamish Alive Coalition, the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, EarthCorps and others to continue to develop relevant, accessible, community-based environmental education opportunities. This fall the group will join Duwamish River Festival at Duwamish Waterway Park in South Park.