A brief history and future of Kah Tai, Sims Way corridor | Guest Viewpoint

Deborah B. Jahnke
Posted 12/3/21

In 1963, the Army Corps of Engineers dredged 231,000 cubic yards of nearshore sand to expand the Port Townsend Boat Haven and dumped it into what had been a beautiful, tidally flushed estuary called …

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A brief history and future of Kah Tai, Sims Way corridor | Guest Viewpoint


In 1963, the Army Corps of Engineers dredged 231,000 cubic yards of nearshore sand to expand the Port Townsend Boat Haven and dumped it into what had been a beautiful, tidally flushed estuary called Kah Tai (qatáy) Lagoon. 

Dumping the sand offshore was deemed too expensive, and the 1960s logic was that estuaries weren’t important anyway. As a part of making the dumping more palatable, rows of Lombardy poplars were planted along the highway. The species was selected more for availability, low cost, and speed of growth than for any benefit to the area.

The Port of Port Townsend had acquired most parcels in the lagoon prior to dumping, and the intent was to build a strip mall on the sand after letting both the sand and the public outrage settle for a few years. Downtown businesses raised a 1,000-plus signature petition against the strip mall idea, arguing that such a development could bankrupt them. A series of lawsuits by citizens delayed the strip mall effort, while a parallel effort by volunteers led to the submission of a grant proposal in 1980 to the National Park Service to make the area a Land and Water Conservation-funded nature park. The city had no money for matching, so the grant match consisted of generous donations of a few privately owned parcels of land that the port had not managed to purchase. The county and port both agreed to give their land in the area to the city if the grant was funded.

The LWCF grant was funded in 1981 and the park boundary established. A second grant proposal to the state provided for the start of development and a 1986 landscape plan was generated by well respected landscape architects and reviewed favorably by a rather famous ornithologist. That plan included a layout of the park into zones with appropriate plant species.

The plan for the zone along Sims Way included: Year 1, remove all poplar seedlings and some mature poplars and plant natives; Year 3, remove more poplars, plant more natives; Year 10, remove more poplars to establish view corridors. The port didn’t sign over its Kah Tai holdings to the city in a timely way, so a 30-year lease was signed in 1982 to allow sufficient time to complete the transfer.

Unfortunately, the full plan was ignored and no land transfer occurred in the 1980s or 1990s or 2000s. Instead, all official effort to follow the landscape plan was halted, but time, volunteers and birds continued to plant. 

If you lived here in the 1980s, you may well have been one of the volunteers who planted natives along Sims, behind the poplars. The beautiful natives filled in the corridor but the poplars remained, a wall of trunks blocking the view and limiting the growth of the native species. A final lawsuit in 2011 led to completion of the land transfer in 2014.

You cannot see the Western Larch turning gold in the Kah Tai woodland because the poplars block the view. You cannot see the beautiful Monterey Cypress (regionally appropriate but not native) or the Douglas firs, Shore Pines, Western Red Cedar, Madrone, the young junipers, Western White Pine, serviceberry, and numerous understory species along Sims because of the poplars. Our native poplars (cottonwoods) are long-lived, but Lombardy poplars are short-lived, brittle, too vertical for most bird species to use, with shallow, spreading, invasive roots.

On the port side of Sims, the poplars do more than block the view. They wander around the property line so that some are on city right of way and some are on port property. Their proximity to high voltage lines and boat masts make them dangerous. 

The PUD needs to underground those power lines on the city right of way, but the shallow, invasive roots make that impossible. The port owns nearly an acre of land that is currently unavailable for economic development because of the poplars. The port has every right to utilize its property and we have a wealth of local professional arborists willing to follow our municipal code on trees and collaborate to advise about selecting appropriate replacement species. 

If you want to know some species that will grow on the south side of Sims, look across the highway. Diverse native species are already here again, and thriving. Let’s do it right this time, on both sides of the Sims Way corridor.

Note: The opinions expressed here belong to the author. An article about Kah Tai written for The Leader in 1984 by then-parks superintendent Kevin Burke provides much more detail about the history, and can be read at http://kahtai.blogspot.com/p/park-emerges.html.

(Deborah B. Jahnke is chair of the Port Townsend Parks, Recreation, Trees and Trails Advisory Board.)


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  • ptleader

    Thank you for this thoughtful and informative article.

    Wednesday, December 8, 2021 Report this

  • cedarrose61

    I always enjoy reading an article that has been well researched and presented so intelligently. I know I could never put out a piece like that. Having been born and raised in this town and growing up on the “swamp road” I’ve always been interested in how the town continues to evolve. Some parts make me sad but that’s life in every town everywhere and nothing stays the same. I’ve always loved driving through the tree-- laned road coming into our town but it’s probably time for better trees to be planted. I’m way more irked with those nuisance roundabouts put on Washington Street. Makes me mad every time I see them. Am not particularly fond of the roundabouts up on the hill coming into town either. And while I’m thinking about it, people can quit trying to get rid of the golf course and when is the post office going to get with the program and have an easier access available? Climbing those back steps and dodging traffic and standing in the cold is not user friendly! Ahhhh…I’d forgotten how much fun writing on the Leader website can be.

    --Joyce Blankenship

    Wednesday, December 8, 2021 Report this

  • pamstin

    This helped me left turn my opinion! Thanks for sharing the science. Perhaps this will help settle the matter.

    Friday, December 10, 2021 Report this

  • ptwise

    great article - thanks for history

    Tuesday, December 14, 2021 Report this

  • jonijobone

    Except, the '86 Kah Tai plan called for 'SELECTIVELY thinning' the Poplars to maintain a view into the Park and Historic District along with planting native ground cover beneath them. Nowhere in the whole plan does it recommend obliterating them.. The 'selectively thinning the Poplars' plan was supported again in the official 1993 landscape design of the Gateway Plan, which also had many local and out of town professional arborists and landscape architects involved. If all those native evergreens planted on their roots grew to full size, the view into the park would be obliterated and all anyone would see driving into town would be a WALL of green only. Also, there aren't many native trees that can be planted along the boatyard side, as most native Cedars, Firs, and Pines, along with the non-natives recommended by the Parks Board - Ash, Oaks, Cypress are extremely pollen producing trees that would be incompatible with the boatwork. The Poplars have provided great benefit to the environment and our town. They've soaked up toxic water and air from road runoff and boatyard activities (Poplars are particularly known and purposly planted for being good at removing toxins), withstood high winds and blocked high winds, fumes, dust, and noise. They've thrived on the brackish sal****er beneath their roots. Wildlife does in fact live within them, in spite of it not being an accommodating wildlife zone with all the industrial and traffic activity (arborist's words). They provide a diversity along with the other non-native trees promoted for planting in Kah Tai Park and around our town, besides just our lovely Evergreen Conifers that are quite abundant. Also, as with any tree, how long it lives depends more on where it's planted than the species. Our Poplars along there average about 50 years old. Most of the Poplars elsewhere around our town are holding strong (for the most part) at ages over 70 (Disco Bay golf course trees). Our recent arborist report (3/22) declared our South side Sims Poplars at 'low risk' according to the ISA Risk Rating and Action Thresholds chart - meaning - insignificant - minor issues of concern for years to come. I'm sure an assessment on the North side trees would be similar - especially with so many young strong Poplars with many decades of life left in them along that side!!

    Tuesday, April 19 Report this