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Originally published Tuesday, July 22, 2014 at 8:42 PM

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City takes a whack at volunteer in Magnuson Park tree cutting

An exuberant volunteer cut down some invasive trees in Magnuson Park. The city seems bent on turning him into a criminal.


Seattle Times staff columnist

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No one would dispute that Kurt Zwar was a bit zealous in his volunteering efforts. OK, maybe overzealous.

But that isn’t the question before the court. The question is: Did this North Seattle man’s passion for native plants turn him into a criminal?

“This whole story is ridiculous,” says Tom Kelly, who heads teams of volunteer land stewards at Seattle’s Magnuson Park. “It’s crazy. It’s Seattle showing no common sense.”

Yes! That’s why even with everything that’s going on in the world, I’m all over this one.

It started a few years back when Zwar, a physical therapist, volunteered to clear out invasive plants from the park. Immediately he attracted notice for the herculean effort he put in pulling up brambles and hacking away at ivy and scotch broom to try to reclaim a meadow.

Zwar estimates he logged 2,400 hours in two years, plus spent $2,000 of his own money buying native plants to help the park.

“He’s about the most productive volunteer we’ve had out here,” says Kelly, who heads a nonprofit group, Magnuson Environmental Stewardship Alliance, that runs work parties in the woods.

But last summer Zwar went too far. He hacked down 10 small poplar trees with an ax. The city’s own management plan says this tree is a high-priority target to be removed from the park. But some parks employees told him to stop and later called the police.

Then in October, Zwar was cutting back some hawthorns (also on the invasive plant “hit list”) when three cop cars rolled up. The police ordered Zwar to leave. Later he got a letter from acting parks Superintendent Christopher Williams banning him from the park for a year, citing his tree cutting and calling it illegal.

“Please return your volunteer sticker in the enclosed self-addressed envelope today,” Williams wrote. “We wish you the best of luck in your future plans.”

Had that signoff been genuine, I wouldn’t be writing this column. Behind the scenes, though, the parks department was urging the city to file criminal charges. The city did in April, charging him with one count of destruction of park property. If convicted, he could face up to a year in jail.

Remember when that federal judge had 120 trees cut down in a Seattle park to improve his view? That was 10 times bigger than this, but that didn’t rate any criminal charges. So how is it that this volunteer ends up as the one on trial?

A parks spokeswoman, Joelle Hammerstad, said it doesn’t work to have community volunteers “implementing their own plans for the parks,” no matter how well-intended. That makes sense to me, but what’s with the criminal charge?

“Staff obviously felt this individual needed more deterrent,” she said.

Except Zwar hasn’t returned to Magnuson Park since he was banned in October. He says no one from parks ever talked with him about the incidents. He was “shocked as hell” when he got the criminal charge in the mail.

A spokeswoman for the City Attorney’s Office, Kimberly Mills, said she couldn’t discuss the case in detail before trial. She did say it involves “extensive damage to park property.”

“This is a very uncommon charge for us to file,” she said. “We don’t do it lightly.”

Kelly, who runs the volunteer group and has worked in Magnuson Park since 1997, says the entire premise of the case — that the park was damaged — is wrongheaded.

“These were invasive trees,” he said. “Parks could be the ones spending their time and energy going after the invasives. Instead they’re going after a volunteer who was doing that work for them.”

A volunteer going rogue could be a problem, Kelly said. But it’s not criminal.

“I would have thought somebody at some point would look at this and say — ‘Hey, this case doesn’t make any sense!’ ”

Not yet they haven’t. The City Attorney’s Office says it’s taking the land steward to trial, on Aug. 12.

It would be one of the first tree-cutting criminal cases around here anyone can remember.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com



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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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