Friends of McKinley Park
As one of Tacoma’s eight original parks, McKinley Park in east Tacoma is a 25-acre historic gem in the Metro Parks’ system. The park opened in April 1901 developed on land donated to the city by the Tacoma Land & Improvement Co. when it built its first addition of houses in what became known as the McKinley Hill neighborhood.
Following the addition of the Freeway in 1965, the park experienced a steady decrease in visitors and subsequently began feeling the effects. Blackberries, Scotch Broom, and English Ivy began to creep their way in and the naturalized lower portion of the park became unmanageable, even for professional park staff. The park began attracting transients who were able to take up residence because of the dense overgrowth of invasive vegetation and lack of regular park users. Surrounding neighbors began to feel less secure and discouraged from enjoying all the park had to offer.
Two years ago, as a member of the Metro Parks South East Maintenance crew, I was tasked with patrolling and maintaining the then not-so-safe feeling 25-acre parcel on a routine basis. Many hours were spent removing litter and homeless encampments created by the park’s new inhabitants and it felt like a never ending battle.
Fast forward two years to 2009, where a newly recharged Friends of McKinley Park enter the picture with a “mission of restoring Old McKinley Park”. With recent safety and play improvements made possible in the developed areas park and play areas thanks to the 2005 Park Improvement Bond, Friends of McKinley found renewed inspiration to fully reclaim the park for the community to enjoy. Their first plan of attack was to clear the area nearest the newly renovated playground so that parents and children would feel safe. This had an immediate impact and saw families and children returning to the park. From there, the Friends of McKinley Park volunteers moved deeper into the natural area. They methodically persevered through every trail, cutting and clearing non-native vegetation opening up the interior of the park’s trail system. Hours upon hours were spent with the goal in making these trails safe, accessible and inviting for all to enjoy.
To aid in their efforts, the Friends of McKinley applied for and received an innovative grant to hire a herd of goats to help clear vegetation from the park’s steep hillside. The goat’s speedy munching, quickly helped free the native forest from invasives that threatened their health, while at the same time eliminating the overgrowth that made the area enticing for encampments. Volunteer Larry Schiedt was on site every step of the way assisting the goat herder with his work. The creative use of the four-legged “kids”, in concert with the tireless work of the volunteers, not only resulted in the clearing of approximately 2-acres, it also attracted families from across the City to explore the newly renovated treasure as they clamored to watch the 300 member crew munch their way through the brambles.
Along the way, the Friends of McKinley became members of Metro Park’s Neighborhood Park Patrol program and learned the skills and techniques of patrolling in neighborhoods and parks. This opened the door for the group to begin reclaiming the lower area of the park and removing the inhabitants that had “set up camp”. Through daily, nightly, and weekly patrols and the help of Tacoma PD, word got out that McKinley was no longer the place to go to and camp out. People could now walk the trails and feel safe. They were wide, clear of litter, blackberries, logs, and best of all, unwanted park users. The Friends of McKinley have begun reclaiming McKinley Park and with it, their neighborhoods.
The work at McKinley Park is far from over, however it is through this group’s tireless efforts that people from not only the eastside, but all of Tacoma, are visiting the park and watching it transform back into the “Old McKinley Park” that the city fell in love with so many years ago.