You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone

Alternative plans
Small forest landowners have numerous sources from which to gain knowledge and advice for successfully managing trees, plant communities, and other critical aspects of their forests.

Joni Mitchell wrote a song in 1970 titled “Big Yellow Taxi.” It became the theme song for the early environmental movement, but the words of the second stanza ring true for all forest land owners—especially those who have to decide what will be the future of their forest lands.

The stanza goes like this:

They took all the trees and put ’em in a tree museum
And they charged all the people a dollar and a half just to see ’em 
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot 

When it comes to the management of forest floor vegetation, most forest land owners do not know what they’ve got. The forest floor vegetation is often viewed as competition for the trees or just in the way of forest management activities. As we learn more and more about the integrated relationship of trees to the other plants, we see that there is more to a forest than just the trees.

Many families have forest management plans that identify the need to manage all the plants of the forest. Many of Washington State’s forests have been managed for timber products and even livestock. These activities can totally change the composition of the vegetation that grows in association with the trees of the forest.

So how do they find out what a native forest plant community looks like?

A good starting point would be to do a community drive-around. Visit public lands that have been managed for forestry, parks and wildlife. This will give you a sample of how the plant community has responded to these activities and what plant communities are still healthy and diverse.

Contact your local Washington State University extension office. They will have lists of contacts and resources that you can assist you. They will also have a list of workshops, classes and field days that have a native plant management focus.

Washington Department of Natural Resources has stewardship foresters who can give you on-the-ground assistance in techniques for managing your forest that will enable you to manage all the native plants—not just the trees.

Contact your local Washington Farm Forestry Association and visit a member who manages their forest in a similar manner to how you want to manage your lands.

Contact the US Forest Service in your area and ask for any information they have on “plant association groups”. This will give you a list of plants that grow with the trees you manage in your forest.

A visit to a local tribal cultural resources department can be very informative. They often have staff who can describe how the forests were when they were managed by the native peoples.

The Washington Native Plant Society is another great resource for native plant identification and management.

Finally a visit to your local book store or library to check out books on native plant and forest management in the Pacific Northwest will give you even more ideas of how you can work with the native forest plants.

Once you have all this information about the native forest plant communities you will know what you’ve got and can take steps to assure that it will not disappear from your family forest.

By Jim Freed, WSU Extension Forest Products Specialist