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.

From Cornfields to Forests–Private Lands Restoration


By Neva Knott

Sasquatch Farm sits on the bank of Wynoochee River near Montesano, Washington. The brother-sister team of Garry and Nancy Dale purchased the land in 2001 as a family project, something that could bring them together for a shared purpose. The farm has indeed created an epicenter for family gatherings. Garry resides in Atlanta, Georgia and Nancy works in Seattle. Beverly, their mom, lives just two miles away and manages the daily operations. The farm is a labor of love, through which the family intends to bring the land back to a natural state of health.

The Dales are converting this former 60-acre corn farm into a diverse mosaic of native forest.  They have restored the riparian buffer zone along the river and planted high value trees in groves and along the property lines. They grow garlic and tend a garden of medicinal herbs, Wynoochee apples, wine grapes, and vegetables. Their long-term plan is to construct an ecosystem that is equally useful to humans, animals, birds, and fish.


Their plan is working. They regularly see fox, coyote, and bald eagles. The river boasts a year-round steelehead fishery. Just days before I visited Sasquatch Farm, an elk herd had moved onto the farm, enchanting the Dales with their presence.

Repairing a depleted landscape is a big job. In 2008, seeking guidance, the Dales joined Northwest Certified Forestry (NCF). NCF Director Kirk Hanson suggested they apply for an Environmental Quality Incentives Program grant (EQIP) from the Natural Resources Conservation Service. EQIP is a federally funded cost share program that provides rural landowners with technical and financial assistance to enhance the ecological values of their land. The Dales have been awarded EQIP funds to work with Hanson to develop an overarching conservation plan for the property, and to implement the various conservation practices Hanson recommended.

On an overcast February day that had a hint of spring in the air, the Dales gathered at the farm to execute this year’s EQIP-funded planting. In four days, they created two groves with 2800 native shrubs and trees. The shrubs will provide berries for wildlife, and also serve as pollinators. The rose varieties will also be used to create a hedgerow, or living fence. The trees will fill in gaps created by voles in tree stands from previous plantings.Image

With this year’s planting completed, Baldhip rose, blue elderberry, Douglas spirea, Indian plum, red flowering currant, serviceberry, sweet gale, thimbleberry, and other varieties dot the surface of the land. Douglas fir, red alder, black hawthorn, and Alaska yellow cedar fill in the perimeter of the property.  Beverly proudly explains that trees grow two times the usual rate at Sasquatch Farm, because of the quality of the soil in the Wynoochee’s flood plain. To illustrate the significance of this point she tells me, “When we bought the place, you could just look at the soil and tell it was depleted. Now, the soil looks like chocolate.” Indeed it does.

When I asked Garry if he would recommend the EQIP program, he said, “Oh, yeah.” Also through their work with Hanson the Dales have achieved Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification of their land, which will allow them to eventually sell forest products with the FSC label.

The Dales are committed to working the land at Sasquatch for conservation values, maybe even more so than they are to making money from the farm. Even so, as the ecological value of the land increases, the Dales are creating opportunities for multiple income streams from the farm. Garry is interested in marketable uses of non-forest products, such as the medicinal herbs from the garden. The timber from thinning projects is sold as firewood, and the garlic is a commodity, though most of it is given away to friends.

None of the family members live there—yet. Nancy explains her long-range vision to me, with excitement, “In seven years or so, yes, I do want to live here. Give permaculture workshops, have a restaurant that serves food we grow here.” Beverly chimes in, “I’m just glad we’re doing some good.”

The work the Dales have done provides many ecosystem services. The trees and shrubs store carbon, thus less of it is released into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas. The riparian buffer zone staves off riverbank erosion, and improves water quality by keeping silt and debris out of the river. These sorts of ecosystems benefits are not possible from land use like the mono-crop corn farming that used to happen there.