Robert Kildall

One of our nation’s most important park stories describes how local citizens, against overwhelming odds, turned an old U.S. Army fort in the Pacific Northwest into Discovery Park, Seattle’s largest open-space park.

A park at the Fort Lawton site had been a civic dream ever since 1917 when city leaders, disappointed that less than a major fort had been built on the grounds, sought the return of the property for a city park.

An opportunity to establish a park arose 47 years later when the Department of Defense announced plans to surplus 85% of Fort Lawton.1 By 1964 it was clear that Fort Lawton did not fit the modern military defensive needs of the nation. Responding to the DOD decision, a citizens’ committee planning the major Forward Thrust bond issue in 1965 included $3 million as “seed” money for a park at Fort Lawton. In early 1968, Seattle voters approved this bond issue.

Later that same year, officials and citizens faced a seemingly impossible task to acquire the Fort for a park when the DOD announced plans to instead level 330 acres at the Fort to build an anti-ballistic missile base. The missiles would defend against incoming Chinese inter-continental ballistic missiles yet to be built. For security reasons, the rest of the Fort would likely be placed off-limits.

The history section of the 1972 Fort Lawton (Discovery Park) Master Plan notes: “The threatened loss of the site at first evoked a cry of protest from only a relatively few individuals. In time, however, that faint cry of protest became a roar of outrage from the community.”

Twenty-five civic and environmental groups, led by U.S. District Judge Donald S. Voorhees, organized the “Citizens for Fort Lawton Park” in June 1968. They sought Washington state’s congressional delegation’s help to not only move the proposed ABM site, but to excess Fort Lawton property for a city park. The CFLP protest brought action by U.S. Senator Henry M. Jackson who interceded with Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford to block the ABM site locating in the Fort. Finally, in December 1968, Clifford declared that the ABM plans for Fort Lawton were being abandoned.

However, under the existing surplus laws, the City would have had to pay millions to acquire the Fort, despite the fact that almost 70 years earlier the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, in the City’s interests, had deeded title to the property to the U.S. Government at no cost, in hopes of seeing a major military fort built there.

Local environmental and civic groups contacted their national offices in Washington D.C. to lobby for a new federal law introduced by Jackson. In Congress it was referred to as “the Fort Lawton Bill.” It was supported by Washington State’s entire congressional delegation. For the first time, cities would be able to obtain excess federal property for park and recreation uses for less than 50% fair market value. To assure that Fort Lawton came free to Seattle, Jackson added to the law, “…if the municipality had given the property to the federal government it shall be returned without cost.”

After abandoning their plans for an ABM installation, the military declared much of Fort Lawton as surplus to its needs. However, Jackson’s legislation was only one of several laws covering federal surplus property. Many competing claims for Fort Lawton were made under other existing excess property laws: The U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard wanted housing, school administrators wanted a campus, veterans groups wanted an “Arlington of the West” cemetery, the state wanted a correctional facility, builders wanted high-rises, and a local group, the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation, wanted ownership. Most of these claims were withdrawn after public demands for a park at Fort Lawton grew in intensity. The park proposal prevailed.

Seattle added 15% more acreage to its existing parkland as a result of Jackson’s legislation. These additions included Discovery Park, Magnuson Park and the Seattle Tennis Center on Martin Luther King Jr. Way. More than 700 cities located within all 50 states received thousands of acres of federal property for parks worth nearly $1 billion.

By early 1971, the Bureau of Indian Affairs asked the City to include a 19-acre site for an Indian Cultural Center in the Park. After negotiations, a lease was drawn up and accepted by both parties in late 1974. It called for the Center to be “Indian in spirit, simple and honest in design, to enrich and be in harmony with the natural setting and uses of a city park at Fort Lawton.”  As the underlying federal deed allowed only park and recreation uses, the City, through the federally-funded Seattle Model City program, provided funds for a building in downtown Seattle to house needed urban Indian social services.

Earlier, Dan Urban Kiley of Charlotte, Vermont, and his Seattle assistant, John Morse, were hired to produce the Fort Lawton Park (Discovery Park) Master Plan. In the plan submitted to the City in 1974, Kiley wrote that if the guiding principles were faithfully followed we “...cannot fail to create a park which will be one of the great urban parks in the world—and a joy to this city forever.”  Words from the Master Plan have been used countless times to fend off incompatible uses proposed for the park:

The primary role of this park in the life of the city is dictated by its incomparable site. That role should be to provide an open space of quiet and tranquility for the citizens of this city—a sanctuary where they might escape the turmoil of the city and enjoy the rejuvenation which quiet and solitude and an intimate contact with nature can bring.

The Plan also contained this warning:

In the years to come there will be almost irresistible pressure to carve out areas of the park in order to provide sites for various civic structures or space for special activities without number for which, it will be contended, this park can provide an “ideal site” at no cost. The pressures for those sites may constitute the greatest single threat to the park. They must be resisted with resolution. If they are not, the park will be so fragmented that it can no longer serve its central purpose.

In his 1979 book, Enjoying Seattle’s Parks, author Brandt Morgan of Santa Fe, New Mexico, wrote:

The spirit of nature thrives in this park, which is gradually reclaiming the old Fort Lawton Army base. Discovery Park encircles generous areas of woodland and beach, and offers mountain views and a variety of natural life zones to explore: meadows with deermice and shrews; forests with wildflowers and ferns; tidal beaches with barnacled rocks and smooth sands; and magnificent sea cliffs that tell 20,000 years of geologic history in colorfully stratified layers.

Wildlife abounds in this nature park. Over 150 species of birds have been seen here and giant squid have been sighted off the beaches. Flying squirrels soar between tree branches. Rabbits hop down hidden pathways. Berries abound in the summer, mushrooms in fall and spring. Discovery Park is a tranquil place away from the stress of the city—at once a wildlife sanctuary and an outdoor classroom for people to learn about the natural world.

In the past three decades there have been more than a hundred proposals for “just a piece” of Discovery Park for “a worthwhile use.” If even half had been successful, there would be no park left. Citizens who fought so hard to create our 534-acre Seattle park remain diligent to see that the Park’s Master Plan is carefully followed.

The Park has become an escape for city dwellers from the streets, buildings, cars, noise, pollution, crowds and the stress of urban living. The chance to be in contact with the wildlife, view the serenity of the mountains and Puget Sound, and the opportunity for peace and solitude is an invaluable gift that Discovery Park affords local residents and visitors from all over the world. They appreciate, and are amazed that within just a few minutes from the center of a city, that it is still possible to find a place of wildness, quiet and tranquility.

Robert Kildall


1  Kiley, Dan. Fort Lawton Park Plan, Seattle Park Department. 1972.13

2  -----. Fort Lawton Park Plan. Appendix A.

3  -----. Fort Lawton Park Plan. 14

4  Federal Lands for Parks and Recreation Act of 1970.


5   Fort Lawton, Discovery Park. Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation. Undated.

6  Preamble to the 1974 Lease Agreement between the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation and the City of Seattle

7  Kiley, Dan. Fort Lawton Park Plan 1

8  Morgan, Brandt. Enjoying Seattle’s Parks. Seattle: Greenwood Publications. 1979. 109-111.

(This article appeared in Seattle’s Magnolia Community Club’s book, Magnolia Memories & Milestones Dec. 2000: Pages 248-252)