By Sean M. Alexander, Forester, Washington State University Extension, firstname.lastname@example.org
Perched on the Columbia
Contained within the banks of the Columbia River is a history of reliance on the landscape to support families and communities. For thousands of years, the abundant populations of salmon returning upstream supported the extensive network of indigenous, Salish-speaking people throughout what is now northeast Washington.
By the 1800s, the abundance of the area attracted new settlers who took advantage of the access to water and the rich, fertile soils of the area. At the same time, the Homestead Act enticed people to settle the area. Fruit farms began springing up along the banks of the Columbia.
As the need for irrigation rose with the expanse of agriculture in Washington as well as the need for hydroelectric power to support the growing communities, construction began on the development of Grand Coulee Dam. By 1940, water levels behind the dam had risen to such an extent that Lake Roosevelt had fully covered the ancestral fishing grounds of the Salish groups and displaced the town of Kettle Falls, along with many of the farms along the old banks.
In 1919, just downstream from Kettle Falls, a farmer looking to make his way in the West purchased a small plot. Slowly cultivating the land, the farmer, planting each fruit tree seedling by hand, sowed his future and the future of his generations to come. Royal Cranston relied on the fertile soil and abundant water that the Columbia River valley provided. Agricultural living in rural America during the early 20th century was dependent on the connection you have to your community. Ranchers, fruit growers, and farmers provided the necessary resources their community needed to thrive. As western expansion continued, railways made their way across Washington, providing needed transportation to ship fruit to cities across the country.
The orchard began to disappear during the Depression. By the 1940s, only a few acres of apple, cherry, and peach trees remained. Albert Kowitz, Royal’s great-grandson, remembers picking cherries in the late ’40s and selling to White’s IGA grocery store in Colville. His father, Howard, would harvest the peaches and sell at the local auction yard in Colville. Today, a half-dozen remnants of the original orchards remain.
After World War II, the farm began moving away from fruit to a diversified small farm that included dairy, hogs, livestock, and growing grain and hay. During this period, Howard purchased the original parcel of land from Albert’s grandfather, Clarence Cranston. Howard later inherited the Kowitz land owned by his stepparents and over the ensuing years purchased adjacent parcels of land around the farm, which grew to about 1,000 acres on the hills looking out over the Columbia. The land included 725 acres of forests of ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, western larch, and western redcedar. The remainder of the property was dominated by open grasslands and agricultural land, perfect for Howard to raise livestock. However, income to dairy and livestock sales were not enough to support the farm and Howard’s family leading Howard to look to his forested land as a source of income.
While diversified small farms were popular across northeast Washington, sawmills and wood production were the drivers of the economy, especially around Kettle Falls. Rivers running down the hills around Sherman Pass were commonly used as log flumes, narrow corridors of waterways ferrying trees down the mountain and spilling them into the Columbia. In the mid-1900s, Kettle Falls had a stud mill to which many local tree farms sold wood. During the offseason for livestock, Howard would select stands throughout his forest and harvest trees to take to the mill. Howard would select the trees, drop them, and buck them into 8-foot logs. Al was right behind on the Caterpillar, choking the trees and skidding them to the landing site to be sorted.
Howard was raised in the timber economy and in the late 1920s and 1930s worked at the White Pine Mill located on the west side of the Columbia River across from the original Kettle Falls and near the historic namesake waterfall. He saw trees in terms of saw logs and felt that they were a wasted resource if they were not used for logs and lumber. Some of the loggers he hired understood sustainable forestry and some did not. Overall, however, through the many decades he was able to support the farm through successive harvests of timber.
Howard’s final harvest was in 2002 to qualify for the Forestry Riparian Easement Program run by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. A year-round stream runs from west to east across the property and flows into the Columbia River. Most of this stream and two other seasonal streams are enrolled in FREP, which compensates landowners for some of the lost value of timber retained in the bigger buffers required by the Forests and Fish rule changes in the late 1990s. Today, the 725 acres of forested land includes a diversity of tree species of varied ages and sizes with considerable regeneration, and a diverse understory.
Choosing to Manage the Land
When Albert’s mother and father retired and were thinking seriously about selling the ranch, he decided to leave his teaching position in communications studies at California State University, Sacramento and return to Kettle Falls to manage the ranch.
Although Al had grown up helping his dad throughout the farm, he had no experience on how to manage forestlands, let alone 725 acres of them. Using the resources that Washington State University Extension had to offer, Al began learn what it meant of be a steward of the land.
The first thing he needed to do was learn about his land. He knew the difference between a pine tree and a “red fir,” but he’d wonder things like, “Why are their only pine growing at the lower-elevation foothills of the property?” He began digging into the influence of soils, how elevation changed precipitation. He learned about topography and the difference between a north- and south-facing slope. Al would notice a few trees turning red or would wonder what was causing the abnormal clusters of growing branches and needles on his Douglas-fir. Walking the forests, he would find evidence of large game on the ground and see cavities created from pileated woodpeckers. Down in the foothills, he would find white-tailed deer tracks. Halfway up the mountain, he could hear the drumming of ruffed grouse or the flight of blue grouse. Game cameras have captured pictures of moose, elk, cougar, coyote, and black bear. The land supports snowshoe hares, multiple species of raptors, and a wide variety of songbirds. He plans to continue to create and maintain snags and abundant wildlife habitat on the property.
In 2015, the Kettle Complex fires, primarily the Stick Pin fire, began raging just a few miles north of the Kowitz property. Every year for the past 20 years, it seemed the smoke choking the sky was getting worse and worse, with megafires wiping out forests across the Pacific Northwest. Now it was at his back door.
Luckily, the fire was north of the property and was moving northward. But it struck a chord with Al, and he knew it was time to take action on his forest. Stemming from his desire to manage with the best science, Al wanted to make sure his decisions and actions set the trajectory of his forest toward
one that was resilient and healthy in the future.
Al began working with local foresters to outline a plan to tackle the ever-growing thicket his forest was becoming. Ladder fuels stretched from bottom to top, with mistletoe permeating through the stand. Al hired a sawyer to drop the trees, and Al and his brother worked evenings and weekends to buck the logs and limb the trees that were left standing. But Al’s curiosity wasn’t diminishing; he took the WSU Extension Forestry Coached Planning course because he wanted to craft his own vision for his landscape and knew he needed to learn more.
Sense of Place
While Al and his brother Ed are the primary caretakers and stewards of the forestland, they are only two of five siblings, all of whom grew up on the farm. Each one developed a deep relationship with the forest and landscape as a child. Now, as adults, some have moved away from the farm and some have continued to live on it, but regardless of where they are, they all return to reconnect with their home forest.
As children growing up, the Kowitz kids would wander through the forest, exploring the hidden groves of cedars or cliffs looking out over the blue water of the Columbia. Over the years, footpaths began to form, creating a storybook journey throughout the property, each journey earning its own name along the way like the title of a chapter. Million Dollar View was a hike that led up the steep southern slope of the property, coined for its namesake, as you could see the vast expanse of the Columbia, the neighboring farm, and the hills. If you got too tired hiking to the Million Dollar View, you could stop at the Half Million Dollar View on the way. Cedar Grove is a hidden, secluded area deep within the forest, where family members go to renew their connection to the land. Whether watching the blossoms of camas turn the hillsides blue, catching the late-summer bird migrations, or hunting to put food on the table for the year, each member of the family finds their sense of place on the land.
Although selling wood to the mills is a viable option, one of Al’s goals was to use the available resources from the forest for projects around the farm. When Al and his family moved back, he reached out to an old friend, an architect who specialized in building solar homes. Three sides of the home would be the traditional wood framing and siding, and the fourth side, which faced south, would be entirely glass. He cut a few larch and ponderosa pine trees and hired a small portable sawmill to cut the wood into 1-by-6 boards. He then took the lumber to the planing mill in Northport and cut tongue-and-groove and used the paneling for parts of the interior walls of his home. The wood gives the interior a beautiful cabin scene, lit up by sun coming through the southern glass wall. When the home was first built, Al would find dead cedar trees, and would use the trees to make cedar shakes for the roof. However, when fires became more frequent on the hillside, he later replaced the roof with a red metal one.
Al has a love for culinary pursuits, and his most recent special spot has been in his asparagus rows. After retiring from the Stevens County WSU Extension Office, Al decided to take a two-year culinary course at the Inland Northwest Culinary Academy at Spokane Community College to get a better idea of how to bring locally produced foods to area restaurants. Over the years, his garden quickly sprouted into about 1 acre that includes asparagus, winter squash, leeks, watermelons, cantaloupes, and corn. He is a member of the LINC Foods cooperative, which works to distribute local produce to restaurants and organizations in the Inland Empire.
During one of his DNR cost-share thinning projects, he read some research on the benefits of using biochar as a soil amendment. He attended a workshop on how to make biochar and consulted with a national expert on how he might use some of the wood from the thinning project to produce biochar. He could then add the final product to his vegetable garden as a soil amendment to improve the soil microbial community, water holding capacity, and a whole host of other benefits.
During his thinning projects, he would save 2-to-6-inch pieces of ponderosa pine, cut to 4 feet in length. When the weather was good, he would create a crossing pile, 4 feet by 4 feet. Adding a little kindling to the top of the pile, he would light the stack and allow it to burn downward. After a fair amount of time, Al said you would begin to see small chunks of charcoal. Before the coals would continue to break down into ash, he would repeatedly turn the pile over, spraying water on the pieces of charcoal until they were cool.
Facilitating the Future
In recent years, Al has found a renewed passion for learning about his forest. After taking the WSU Coached Planning course, Al began to research what frequent-fire ecosystems would have looked like. Kaci, Al’s daughter-in-law, is pursuing a master’s degree in forest ecology at Oregon State University and, as a part of a larger team, is hoping to implement management techniques that facilitate resilient and healthy forests including the use of fire. She will be a valuable resource for Al and his brother Ed as they care for their forest.
Like many forest landowners, maintaining forest health has always been a concern for Al. When he took over the property from his father, dwarf mistletoe had been spreading rapidly on one of the parcels. He does not intend to manage for commercial purposes but recognizes the need to cut trees across all diameter ranges if it improves the overall health of his stands.
Once Al has reached his target density for the forest, he hopes to begin to implement prescribed fire in the lower, dry pine stands. Litter and duff layers have built up over the years. Prescribed fire will help reduce the fine fuels on the forest floor and promote regrowth of fire-adapted species. Al and Kaci are also concerned about the future of the climate, especially how it will impact their dry forest, which already receives limited precipitation.
Through partnerships with carbon credit programs and DNR cost-share programs, Al wants to manage the Kowitz family stand for a resilient forest that will store carbon, be resistant to fire, and become a land legacy to pass down to the coming generations.