A hemlock tree viewed from below, looking up into the branches. Photo by Paul Shannon

The Unlikely Partnership Supporting South Seattle Youth Through Forest Science

CHOOSE 180 Interns Research Hemlock Tree Mortality at Seward Park 

by Ronnie Estoque

Paul Shannon, a forest steward at Green Seattle Partnership and member of Friends of Seward Park, heard Sean Goode speak on the radio last summer, after the police killing of George Floyd, about the importance of community support for racial justice. Inspired and impressed by Goode’s segment, Shannon reached out and became a volunteer for Goode’s organization, CHOOSE 180, which supports young people who are disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system in King County. 

As the executive director of the organization, Goode seeks to provide job training for youth participants in CHOOSE 180. This summer, for example, they offered an entrepreneurship internship that taught business basics. But Shannon’s expertise offered a unique opportunity to the youth in the program. He just wrapped up leading a six-week paid internship program with CHOOSE 180 to provide three of their interns the opportunity to learn a different kind of trade. Specifically, they worked to assess the die-off of hemlocks, the Washington State tree, in the old-growth forest at Seward Park.

“The outdoors has been largely colonized,” said Goode. “And because it’s been colonized, and it’s been a place of discomfort for many Black and Brown folks, it’s not a natural partnership for us to lean into when we’re thinking about ways to support young people and job training.” 

Earlier this year, Shannon ran into Goode at Seward Park and pitched the idea of developing a partnership with Friends of Seward Park for youth to get hands-on field work experience researching and collecting data about the local environment. The organizations went to work on the plan, securing a $4,500 Department of Neighborhoods grant for funding. The Seattle Parks Foundation assisted in providing insurance for the program and Seattle Parks and Recreation, along with local plant expert consultants, played a role in reviewing the scientific proposal that Shannon wrote.

The three interns who participated in the summer program had no prior experience working in the field gathering data, according to Shannon. The interns primarily focused on mapping, recording, describing, and measuring hemlocks. Shannon hopes that the data gathered can provide insight as to why the die-off of hemlocks in Washington State has massively increased over the past few years.

Nathiya Guerra records location, height, diameter and health status of the tree, one of 108 hemlocks surveyed in the 6-week project. Photo by Paul Shannon.
Nathiya Guerra records location, height, diameter and health status of the tree, one of 108 hemlocks surveyed in the 6-week project. (Photo: Paul Shannon)

“They [CHOOSE 180 interns] really did a magnificent job of learning skills and doing the measurements that we did on about 120 different trees; they became super competent,” Shannon said. “I think that they really enjoyed that active nature of the research that we did — it’s just like the opposite of learning scientific topics in a classroom or out of a book.”

Data collected by the interns during their six-week program has been sent to Joseph Hulbert, the program director of Forest Health Watch, which collects information from community scientists to keep forests in the Pacific Northwest healthy. 

While there is no concrete conclusion yet as to what is causing the progressing hemlock die-off rate, Bob Edmonds, a tree disease expert and professor emeritus of environmental science at the University of Washington, made a visit to Seward Park during the internship and suggested annosus root disease, Armillaria root rot, Phytophthora root rot, and laminated root rot were all possible causes.

Hope Allen uses a low power laser, used in the calculation of tree height, to establish a baseline on a dead hemlock in the northern quadrant of Seward Park. Jayden Schnell-Dry holds the omni-directional reflecting laser target. (Photo: Paul Shannon)

While researching the effect of tree diseases may seem hyper-specific, Shannon hopes the youth in the program took a bigger lesson from the work. “It’s really true that there’s a lot of problems in the world … racial injustice, structural racism, climate change, the equitable distribution of wealth — and it’s really hard to find a way to help, but if you can land on a problem where you can, you can actually work on something,” Shannon said.

Goode is looking forward to expanding on this internship program and potentially offering more opportunities like it throughout the year.

“There’s something that we can build together, to be able to help break down some of the stigmatization and barriers of the space that’s been historically colonized and help acclimate young people to the environment that’s around them,” Goode said.

Ronnie Estoque is a South Seattle-based freelance photographer and videographer. You can keep up with his work by checking out his website.

📸 Featured Image: A stately hemlock. (Photo: Paul Shannon)

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