Point Defiance Park – a living museum


Point Defiance Park is as rare as it is gorgeous.

No where else can one find 500 acres of old-growth forest along the shore of Puget Sound and all within the city of Tacoma. The forest is interwoven with walking and running trails, bike paths, and picnic areas that provide a serene reprieve from the urban bustle just beyond its shady canopy.

One of the park’s many footpaths

Excellent stewardship on the part of Metro Parks Tacoma is to credit for the forest’s preservation. The agency manages parks all over the city, but Point Defiance stands out within Tacoma – and the Puget Sound region – because it is Forest Stewardship Council-certified through Northwest Certified Forestry (NCF). Point Defiance Park continues to meet and exceed the requirements necessary for the most rigorous forest management certification.

Mark McDonough, the urban forester for Metro Parks Tacoma, discusses with me the unique history that has allowed the conservation of this old-growth forest in the city while others forests have been lost. The area began as a space for military training during the 1800s but was never home to any military operations and thereby avoided the industrialization that swept across the region. By the late 19th century, the city of Tacoma took over stewardship of Point Defiance and designated it as a pristine area, keeping it open to the public for what has now been over a century. Eventually, Metro Parks Tacoma took over management of the park, and they have tended to the land ever since. Fortunately the forest’s restoration needs are minimal, and the park has very few issues with invasive species and disease. “The goal is to keep the area as natural as possible,” Mark explains.

As Mark and I wind through Douglas-fir-dominated stands to patches of Pacific madrone with its peeling bark, we discuss the value of this place. Mr. McDonough tells me that due to its accessible location, it attracts over 3 million visitors annually, some of whom would otherwise not have the opportunity to experience a forest as old and pristine as Point Defiance. Transportation can be a serious consideration for low-income families, so traveling the upwards of two hours in order to hike in the woods is simply beyond the scope of many. The park is an alternative for everyone who is limited in time or money but is still passionate about exploring nature.

“This park is not only for Tacoma but for the whole Pacific Northwest,” Mark says.

An old cedar (left); A small stand of madrone by the water (center); Leaving dead trees like this provides essential habitat for wildlife (right)
An old cedar (left); A small stand of madrone by the water (center); Leaving dead trees like this provides essential habitat for wildlife (right)

An intact old-growth forest within the city is a unique outdoor classroom. Local universities like the University of Puget Sound and Pacific Lutheran University use the park to conduct research due to its proximity to the city, and there is even the Science and Math Institute (SAMI), a public high school located on Point Defiance grounds. SAMI often incorporates its surroundings into the curriculum and partners with the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium.

The city and Metro Parks Tacoma feature educational opportunities in the forest and the local community is frequently involved. In 2011, teachers, volunteers, families, and scientists set out to find and identify the many different types of biodiversity present in the park in a day-long program called BioBlitz. From fungi to mammals, over 168 volunteers discovered and recorded hundreds of plant and wildlife species. Events like BioBlitz and others allow residents to explore the park and encourage them to consider the significant role forests play in our communities.

One of three deer sightings during my time in the park

Point Defiance Park has served the Puget Sound community well throughout the years, and management only plans on diversifying the benefits of the park further. In fact, Metro Parks Tacoma continually introduces new projects to improve the quality of Point Defiance, and future construction will include a new aquarium and 11-acre park on the peninsula. As Mark and I approach the Mountaineer Tree, a particularly old Douglas-fir, I feel the history that this park carries. This piece of land is a mere snapshot of the many forests that once blanketed this entire region and is part of the appeal of the beautiful Pacific Northwest. For Mark, the importance of this park lies in this rarity that is ever-increasing as time goes on.

“This place is a living museum right here in the city,” Mark says, “and that is priceless.”

The citizens of Tacoma and beyond are very fortunate to have access to the beauty and tranquility that the old-growth region in Point Defiance Park offers. Careful stewardship of the land has enabled this area to remain a very special place that will continue to be treasured by countless generations.

Make a visit to the park yourself! Learn more at Point Defiance Park’s website.

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