Welcome to the Heron’s Nest Outdoor Education Center
By Olivia Palmer
On a busy weekday, West Marginal Way is a concrete canyon.
Shipping containers and industrial buildings line the roadway. Trucks rumble past. Traffic roars. Venture just a few hundred meters off the main road, however, and a different world appears.
Just beyond the cacophony of traffic and industry is The Heron’s Nest Outdoor Education Center- a quiet, 3.5-acre parcel of land along the West Duwamish Greenbelt.
“It kind of feels a little unreal,” said Andrew Grueter, an ecotour guide with Duwamish Tribal Services. “You go from driving on West Marginal Way, you take a turn, you drive for like 30 seconds and you feel like you're out of the city.”
The Heron’s Nest is a project founded by Shared Spaces Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on outdoor education, stewardship and land repatriation. Amanda Lee, volunteer field director for the project and board member of Shared Spaces, said the idea for the Heron’s Nest initially began in the spring of 2020 when they first saw the property and connected with the owner, Cardiff Investments LLC.
“The parcel had been sitting pretty much vacant and dilapidated for about six years, and was completely overgrown. I was kind of just helping keep an eye on the place,” Lee said.
Lee said the property was riddled with problems, including criminal activity, stolen and stripped cars, trash and hazardous materials.
“The more I learned about the actual parcel itself, the more I kind of personally became involved with the stewardship of land,” Lee said. “I just asked the owner if I could begin cleaning up the area and removing some of the garbage and debris because it is such a beautiful area.”
In June of 2020, Lee began their vision for the land by clearing it. After an initial conversation with Duwamish Tribal Services, they began working with volunteers on a variety of projects, including invasive plant removal, restoring and adding to a 65-foot greenhouse on the property, and setting up handwashing stations, outhouses and a classroom space.
While cleanup and construction of the project’s non-permanent structures is still underway, the Heron’s Nest has been able to facilitate a handful of community events, including outdoor movie nights, Saturday and Monday volunteer stewardship days and workshops on skills relating to self-sufficiency and economic empowerment like carpentry, mechanics and urban agriculture.
Lee said one of the main goals of the project is to keep the space green and save it from development. Shared Spaces is currently leasing the land and hopes to purchase it by the end of the year. Otherwise, it will be sold to a private developer to build townhomes on, Lee said.
Along with the push to save the land is the intention to give it back to the Duwamish Tribe, whose longhouse is just south of the property. While the Heron’s Nest is open to the community, Lee said they’ve been intentional about creating a relationship with the tribe and making the land accessible for the tribe’s use specific to its needs.
“The Duwamish are still here,” Lee said. “It's not only ‘stop the development and save the green space project,’ but also repatriating land back to the Duwamish people who lived on and utilized this land right here, hundreds of years prior to that.”
Grueter said the tribe worked with the Heron’s Nest on an initial agreement, which it plans to enter formally if the land is purchased.
“The tribe already had programs for restoration, water quality monitoring, pollution mitigation and things in and around the greenbelt very close to the Heron’s Nest. So it kind of fits in really well with a number of different projects that the tribe wants to do,” Grueter said. “There's all sorts of different projects that both groups really care about and intersect.”
Lee said the Heron’s Nest has helped establish a trail from the parcel to the longhouse, and plans to grow fruits and vegetables and construct an outdoor kitchen in support of tribal events like cookouts and parking lot produce stands. The tribe has also considered using the land for emergency housing.
Grueter said the Duwamish Tribe's lack of acknowledgment limits its access to resources and ability to own land. Its partnership with the Heron's Nest could help it carry out more projects and add to its land ownership.
The tribe’s history is intertwined with a history of industrialization, which has had lasting impacts on the land.
“Historically, there were several different Duwamish villages just in the span of a few miles on this side of the river when the city of Seattle began developing industry originally, like logging and shipping and fisheries and mills,” Grueter said. “Those industries, and also white settlements, were the first things to displace the Duwamish from their villages here.”
Grueter said after those Duwamish villages were displaced, the neighborhood of Youngstown emerged. That neighborhood too, however, was chipped away by industry, eventually getting demolished and replaced by a port.
“So industry has more than heavily shaped the surrounding area,” Grueter said. “It actually completely eradicated first the Duwamish villages and then the neighborhood that replaced them.”
Today, the legacy of the area’s industrial past lives on.
Grueter said toxic byproducts from cement production were dumped near the parcel in the 1960s; even now, the Heron’s Nest must grow all of its edible plants in raised beds due to the effects of those hazardous materials on the soil.
While the parcel’s location in an industrial setting presents challenges, Grueter said it also presents an opportunity for community members to set a good precedent by cleaning up the pollution, especially when the city doesn’t always have the means or capacity to do so.
“The goal is basically to find the cheapest, most effective, replicable solutions to clean up something like this, so we can do public workshops on it and show that it's a usable model so that people don't have to rely on industries and governments to one day fix the problem,” Grueter said. “People can take it into their own hands.”
Looking toward the future, Lee hopes to continue clearing out the space, finish construction and potentially even start a recycling system. The most urgent goal, however, is coming up with the funds to purchase the property.
Lee said the Heron’s Nest only has until December to offer a down payment of at least $200,000. So far, it’s only raised about $10,000. If the project can’t raise the remaining money, the property will be sold and turned into townhomes.
“We definitely need as much support as we can get to make this happen,” Lee said. “We're definitely open and would love more volunteers, and also just the financial support as well around making the project happen.”
Lee said as the Heron’s Nest focuses on fundraising and spreading awareness in the short term, they want to see more people visiting the property. At this point, they’re open to community members’ ideas for events, and are primarily focusing on making the space as accessible as possible.
“It's a safe and accessible space for all members of the community around Seattle and the extended area,” Lee said, adding that they specifically hope to provide a safe space for members of the Duwamish Valley, BIPOC and LGBTQ communities.
Those involved with the project share a similar hope.
Audrey Liu-Sheirbon, who has volunteered with the project for a few weeks, said she sees the Heron’s Nest as a space with the potential to diversify the outdoors.
“I think its proximity to the city is what makes it so special,” Liu-Sheirbon said. “I'm hoping that it provides a safe space to those who don't necessarily have the access to outdoor educational resources.”
As a recent high school graduate, Liu-Sheirbon said the project also holds significance to her as a young person. She said she thinks it offers the opportunity to explore a kind of learning that isn’t always accessible or traditionally offered.
“As a young person, I'm just starting to learn all of these new outdoor skills,” Liu-Sheirbon said. “I don't know how to cook outdoors, necessarily, or garden. I guess I was never really taught that in school.”
Andrew Pierce has volunteered with the Heron’s Nest since nearly its start. Looking back on the work he and others have put into the project, he said he hopes to see it continue to grow and thrive in the years to come.
“It's just starting to show, I think, the potential that it could have,” Pierce said. “If we were to keep doing different planting projects and projects over the next 10 years, it could be really, really beautiful.”
Use and tours at the Heron’s Nest are currently by reservation only. Those interested in learning more about donations, events and volunteer opportunities with the Heron’s Nest can visit the project’s website, Facebook (@TheHeronsNestCamp) or Instagram (@heronsnestoutdoor), or email HeronsNestOutdoor@Gmail.com.
I love this so much. This is the future I envisioned for the Duwamish Valley and its peoples. I live in South Park and see, feel, hear and breathe the effects of industrial encroachment. Without spaces like the Herons nest, the Duwamish Valley is not live-able. Thankyou to everyone who worked hard on this and made this possible. It brings happy tears to my eyes. There is still so much beauty and potential restoration in the Duwamish River Valley. You wouldnt believe how many species nest/visit my yard each year. The DV wants to live, give it a chance!