A Congregation of Land Stewardship

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By Neva Knott

Hood Canal, the fjord that separates the main portion of Washington State from the Olympic Peninsula, is one of the four basins of Puget Sound. This long and thin waterway is surrounded by a landscape diverse in foliage and full of recreational opportunities. Several rivers run to reach it. Deer and elk flourish there. The ecosystem the canal creates is prime for timber growing, and timber is a money-maker in Washington State.

Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Marysville, WA inherited 132 wooded acres near Belfair, a small town along Hood Canal, from a member of its congregation. The land was logged in the 1970s, 100 per cent clear-cut, with an estimated yield of 1 million board feet of timber. It has been given no attention since, so what the Church inherited was a scraggly mess of tangled brushy understory and densely packed tree stands. Each species was competing for nutrients with other trees and vegetation. Nothing was growing to marketable proportion.

The benefactor placed no restrictions on use of the land, but left it with the intent it serve the church financially. Church council considered sale or development, though neither seemed viable, due to market conditions and expenses involved. Church spokesman Roger Issacson grew up around Belfair and spent his youth, during the time of World War II, with the Hood Canal area as his hunting and fishing territory. He says this gave him some foresight in how the land should be used. Roger knew the best approach was to manage it as a woodlot for timber production.

Since the 1970s attitudes toward forestry management have changed. It is now understood that clear-cutting is not sustainable. It takes somewhere between 30 and 40 years to grow new trees marketable as timber. The new style of management has many names: restoration forestry, ecological forestry, community forestry, sustainable-yield forestry. Regardless of the moniker, the aims are the same, to manage for regular and ongoing harvest without wiping out the whole forest in the process of harvesting. Sustainable-yield forestry provides the woodlot owner a more regular, regulated, and steady stream of income.

To create such an income stream for the Church, Roger hired John Zapel of Westek, Ltd., a long-time logger, logging consultant, and restoration forester. If anyone knows the business of managing a working forest, John does. John’s early assessment of the Church’s parcel indicated overgrowth from that previous clear-cut. John’s management goal is to thin the existing tree stands, diminish understory brush, and plant 25, 000 new trees across the blank areas.

The day I walked part of the project landscape with John, he was working with a mulching head to shock the salal and huckleberry. He explained that this technique will stop the brush from growing long enough for the trees to take hold. Once the trees are established, their shade will modulate brush growth, allowing enough to grow for healthful forest function, but disallowing it to take over. Brush overgrowth is the biggest silvicultural obstacle in both Mason and Kitsap counties, and is due to the richness of the soil. John shows me a patch of scraggle he’s not yet worked over. Indeed, it is an impenetrable wall. To illustrate his point, John tells me it took his crew three weeks to lay 2-1/2 miles of access road because of this brush thickness. Even though this brushy understory is problematic now, once this forest is re-organized and regularly managed, sale of salal, cedar boughs, and mountain huckleberry will add to the income stream.

In the pre-commercial thinning process, John removed a mix of white pine, shore pine, cedar, hemlock and Douglas fir. Most of the 25,000 trees that will be planted are Douglas fir, cedar and hemlock. They will be used to replant existing clear-cut areas, old logging skid trails, and open holes found while thinning understory and removing brush. About 40 acres will be ready to log in eight years. John’s goal is to create a rotational growth pattern that allows for selective logging every ten years. Overall, the growth rate on the woodlot should increase two-fold.

I ask about the large piles of debris along the road. John explains they’re the remnants of the pre-commercial thinning he did to even out the too-thick tree stands. About 100 loads of white pine were sold for pulp. What’s left in piles was intended for sale as hog fuel, a burnable mix of chipped wood waste, but the market dropped below what is cost-effective to transport and process.

John’s expertise and knowledge of the industry led Roger to Northwest Certified Forestry and the resource network Northwest Natural Resources Group. NCF Director Kirk Hanson provided technical assistance and guidance so that the Church could access the Environmental Quality Incentives Program cost-sharing program. EQIP is a federal funded cost share program run by the Natural Resources Conservation Service.  EQIP provides owners of forest production land with technical and financial assistance to enhance the ecological values of their land.

Use of EQIP proved immediately profitable. After the first phase of the project, the laying in of access roads and the sale of logs from pre-commercial thinning, the Church netted about $60,000. This money was immediately re-invested into the next phases of the project—brush thinning and replanting. Roger tells me that EQIP has paid off, financially and in terms of the aims of the church. He acknowledges that true profit will arise in about seven years, and then will stay steady with the management program he, John, and NCF have developed.

Roger recommends the EQIP program, “with care, and depending on who is looking to use it.” He cautions that EQIP is run by a federal agency, so be prepared to wait and work through agency channels and processes. He laughs, and tells me, “My background is in the military, so I know dealing with federal agencies takes perseverance. It’s not for someone looking for a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, and one must be aware of the long term and that it is not a get-rich-quick opportunity.” In fact, Roger comments, EQIP is intended to prevent the take-the-money-and-run type of woodlot management of previous decades, in favor of long-term, sustainable management.

I was curious about the congregation’s response to taking on the task of growing a forest and harvesting timber. Roger replied that, “It’s the Parable of the Talents,” so they have no problem. We’re going to manage the Church’s land well.” Congregation members will not be doing any of the heavy work, but will have the opportunity to participate by purchasing a tree and watching it grow. The youth minister is looking to the future with the idea of holding retreats on the land. Church youth will also be responsible for harvesting and marketing the non-timber products, such as salal.

Long-range planning and management of a woodlot leaves habitat intact for other forest-dependent species and provides for ecosystems services such as carbon storage that reduces global warming. It is this type of ecological enhancement that EQIP looks for in projects it funds. With the focus provided in John’s plan, the Church will have a steady income stream as well as the unique opportunity to serve as stewards of the land and many of God’s other creatures.

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One thought on “A Congregation of Land Stewardship

  1. There is a large tract of land across the road from my development that was bequeathed to a children’s home. About ten years ago, they razed the land for the lumber and now it has grown back much as you described here, with no obvious land management since. Perhaps I will contact their administration and share this story as inspiration.

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