EVERETT — Balancing on a hillside in Forest Park last week, Brandon Ellsworth wielded a long metal tool called a weed wrench like a floor jack in a garage.
But instead of lifting a car, the target was an English laurel about four feet high with a trunk two inches around.
Ellsworth gripped the base of the trunk with the weed wrench, braced the base of the tool in the sandy soil, and pushed the long lever back.
The laurel snaked out of the ground, trailing three feet of sinewy roots.
“This is number six,” Ellsworth said, referencing how many laurel trees he’d pulled out that week. “But at least they’ll never come back.”
That is the intention, at least in the forested section of the park.
He and other volunteers were put to work in this area of Forest Park as part of the city’s long-term plans to improve the health of Everett’s largest urban forest.
For the past three years, work crews composed of city staff and volunteers have been working on the slope above Mukilteo Boulevard, pulling out invasive species like Himalayan blackberry, ivy, English and Portuguese laurel and holly. They’re replacing them with trees more appropriate to the area like giant sequoia and Thujopsis dolabrata, a species of cypress, and laying down mulch.
Its a challenge to balance the park’s history with its modern needs, said Geoff Larsen, a city horticulture and forestry supervisor.
Forest Park was developed in the 1930s by the Hall Family along the lines of a traditional English garden: neat rows of holly and laurel, decorative ivy and ornamental conifers.
The problem was that many of those pretty garden plants tend to spread easily, and quickly jumped the confines of the English garden into the surrounding forest.
Larson pointed down a recently worked hillside.
“There were holly trees growing all over the hillside here,” he said.
Now there are the tall Douglas fir, Sitka spruce and western red cedars from the park’s early days, interspersed with newly planted saplings. Dead trees, or those posing a danger, are removed, but the logs are left on the hillside to help stabilize the slope.
Still, the work is a long-term process. One fallen trunk is all but invisible under a blanket of laurel saplings.
“It’s kind of like a green forest fire, where these large aggressive invasive species have taken over,” Larsen added.
It crowds out understory trees like vine maples and leaves a lot of bare soil underneath, leading to a less stable slope.
Pulling the invasive species from the steep slopes is back-bending work that would be a serious drain on the city’s coffers without the volunteer help.
Pulling all the invasive plants from Everett’s 354 acres of parkland would cost at least $6.5 million, city officials have estimated, even when relying on volunteer labor.
“It became apparent to us a few years ago that many cities have lost a tremendous amount of resources during the economic downturn,” said Micki McNaughton, the special project coordinator for the state’s Urban Forestry Restoration Project, which manages reforestation projects in 30 jurisdictions across the state and assigns the AmeriCorps crews to various projects.
In 2012, the city and the nonprofit Forterra launched the Green Everett Partnership and developed a 20-Year Forest Management Plan to help restore the health of the city’s wooded areas. The city provided $70,000 and the Boeing Co. contributed $100,000 to begin the work.
In 2012, a crew of volunteers came from Everett High School’s ROTC program. Last year and this year it was AmeriCorps volunteers.
The current crew of five volunteers moves from city to city each month. August was Everett’s turn. In September, the crew will be in Snohomish, its home base.
Crew lead Lindsey Juen, 23, was in her element. A Western Washington University graduate with a degree in environmental policy and planning, she was enjoying pulling out the laurels.
“We’ve been stuck pulling ivy for a while, so it’s nice to have some heavy duty work to do,” she said.
Looking down the slope being slowly cleared of the laurel and holly, she noted, “If these took over there would be nothing to stop (the hillside) from washing out.”
Instead, the picked-over slope will be ready for the fall, when volunteers from Forterra will plant more trees. About 500 have been planted in the park in the past three years.
“We’re replanting with what’s going to be sustainable in 100 years,” Larsen said.