Fantasy Island

Is it a wetland paradise? Or 100-year-old fill? Either way it's likely to be reamed by a new Evergreen Point bridge.

Four words that thrill a journalist's heart (particularly a journalist who's seen too many horror movies): ancient Indian burial ground. I'm talking about Foster Island, the last bit of solid earth beneath your wheels before heading east over the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge. Which, of course, is due for a costly, controversial replacement after 43 years of traffic far exceeding original estimates. (Microsoft? Who knew?) The Seattle City Council is getting ready to endorse its "preferred alternative" for the multibillion-dollar project, proposing an offshore six-lane interchange that would launch cars across an overpass that begins by Foster Island and lands near Husky Stadium. It would reduce the impact on the prosperous Montlake neighborhood, but also pave over more of Foster Island. Shaped something like a lima bean, bisected by the cruel knife of 520, Foster Island is part of the Washington Park Arboretum designed by James Dawson and John C. Olmsted and built during the '30s with WPA money and labor. Today, the seven-acre blob, named for a settler family, is mostly frequented by runners, nature walkers, and, for the Opening Day regatta, rowdy throngs of rowing fans. It's about half cultivated and maintained, with signs identifying selected flora, and about half wild thicket of rushes, cattails, and brambles better appreciated by canoe than by the few foot trails. Is this precious natural paradise about to be destroyed by our insatiable lust for pavement and highway capacity? Well, first define paradise. Foster Island, the northern Arboretum, and indeed the whole of Union Bay (that Lake Washington cove where Husky fans park their boats) hardly resemble their natural state 100 years ago. Although signage touts the whole expanse as "the largest wetland left in Seattle," comprising some 74 acres with four miles of shoreline, it's really more of a park—designed by man, built to plan, constructed for purposes its original Native American inhabitants would hardly recognize today. For starters, the water level is nine feet lower today than it was before the Montlake Cut, connecting Lake Washington with Lake Union, was opened in 1917. This essentially drained and killed the original deep marshes that once extended west roughly to the edge of the present University of Washington campus and north to where Ravenna Creek once flowed into the present site of the University Village shopping center. Fill from the cut and years of garbage dumping shrank Union Bay to perhaps half its original size. Suddenly made larger in the lowered lake was Foster Island, expanded still more with fill when the Arboretum's canoe lagoons were dredged during the Depression. Originally, however, the Indians who kept summer camps in Union Bay had a very different use for tiny Foster Island. In a remarkably rich and detailed Seattle Weekly story from 1984, historian David Buerge explains that the local tribe, the hloo-weelh-AHBSH: " . . . took their name from the narrow passages that intersected the Union Bay marsh. This group, commanding the eastern terminus of the portage to salt water, was the largest of any living on the lake. Five longhouses were located on the northern margin of the bay. This group's burial ground was located on Foster Island, where the dead were placed in boxes and hauled up into the branches of trees. From time to time, the lashings securing these boxes would give way and the bones would slip out, falling with an audible clatter upon the ground." Not that I hear anything during a recent morning walk there. No bones, no clatter. Just the quarreling ducks, the shrill rat-a-tat of the kingfishers, the splash of a sculler's oars, the mud puckering beneath my feet on the shoreline trail (built in 1967), and, of course, the constant roar of 520. Could the wailing souls of the Indian dead now be calling out to us from each passing vehicle, so like their original coffins, passing in a ghoulish precession across the Styx to an endless purgatory of tech jobs and shopping at Bellevue Square? Or maybe I'm just imagining that part. No Indian remains have ever been found on Foster Island, and the hloo-weelh-AHBSH Duwamish were gradually dispersed from their Seattle home to various reservations following the 1855 Point Elliott Treaty. Their fishing activities and harvesting of wapato and other native plants seem to have ended by the time of the Cut's opening. (Though still being contested, the Duwamish lack a reservation or tribal status of their own; today, the Muckleshoot, Tulalip, and Suquamish have court-sanctioned fishing rights on Lake Washington.) Meanwhile, as the Arboretum braces for some form of 520 replacement, Seattle Parks and Recreation recently put $1.2 million into restoring the sheltered inner (south) edge and lagoon of Foster Island. The north, Cut-facing side is reinforced with a beefy stone breakwater, owing to constant jet ski and boat traffic through a channel now deep enough for large Alaska-bound barges and some large oceangoing vessels. Whether six lanes or four, the new 520 will inevitably occupy a much larger footprint across Union Bay. The six-lane Pacific Interchange plan that the city council is leaning toward includes a bridgelike structure, perhaps 110-feet tall, that would soar north from 520 over Marsh Island—the floating clump of reeds and mulch now connected by a waterfront trail to the doomed Museum of History and Industry—and deposit cars through Husky Stadium's south parking lot to the intersection of Montlake and Pacific (where a Sound Transit light rail station is also planned). Additional ramps would stand on pilings above the lagoons, further impacting the area. But Mayor Nickels, eager to preserve money for his coveted tunnel replacement for the downtown Viaduct, wrote a letter to the council in late September cautioning that the six-lane plan hadn't been adequately assessed for environmental impacts. Meanwhile, groups like the No Expansion of SR520 Citizens Coalition argue that we shouldn't trade any more wetlands for concrete, and that any replacement of 520 should be kept to the current four lanes. (One reason 520 follows its present route is because the city already owned most of the right-of-way, meaning it could simply chop some 60 acres out of the Arboretum.) The state hopes to begin building around 2010. There are partisans for four lanes, six, and the inevitable "no-build" option, that perennial Seattle favorite. From the descendants of the hloo-weelh-AHBSH, nothing has been heard, whether pro or con, about the site of their old burial ground. Like the rest of Union Bay, it wouldn't look the same now from a carbon-fiber Pocock rowing shell or being towed behind a $50,000 Ski Nautique. Or through the windows of a Lexus (still) stuck in traffic. But if there is a curse, an eventual day of reckoning when a mighty tsunami roars up Lake Washington and destroys our multibillion-dollar new bridge, sinking its floats, snapping its columns, and plunging commuters into the water in the middle of important phone calls and BlackBerry messages, you read it here first. bmiller@seattleweekly.com

 
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