Getting Back to the Land

Load of logs from the Mack property
Load of logs from the Mack property heading to the mill. Photo: John Stuart.

After five years of helping assemble Forest Stewardship Notes, this is my last newsletter before I join the happy crew of new retirees at the end of the year. Andy Perleberg asked me to write a few words of reflection for the occasion, and what could be more apt than describing the impact our forest stewardship classes have had on my own personal experience as a forest landowner. After 20 years with WSU Extension, I will truly miss the day-to-day work with colleagues from DNR and WSU. But, I’ve got to say I am ecstatic about having a lot more time to play in my own 40 acres of woods here in the northeast corner of the state.

I feel very lucky to have landed in this spot, considering that I was a mere 23 years old when I signed the purchase papers for the property—a back-to-the-lander wannabe from the 70’s. My husband and I built a house here, raised a family (and a large garden) and have watched our forest grow for more than 40 years now. John and I both did forestry contract work for the first 20 years of our careers so we probably had more woods know-how than the average landowners. Even so, one of the most eye-opening experiences for us was taking a Forest Stewardship Coached Planning course as participants about 10 years ago. (Yes, I’d led this course locally at least four times already—but somehow had never got around to writing a stewardship plan for our place… It was clearly time to get the rest of the family involved.)

Logging techniques 1980/present
Left: Pony logging in the 1980s. Photo: Carol Mack Right: ATV with logging arch. Photo: Carol Mack

Like most timberland for sale at the time, our place had just been logged when we bought it. We knew from the beginning we wanted to grow big trees back as fast as possible to improve wildlife habitat and forest health, as well as to create beautiful woods for our family to enjoy. We did a lot of thinning and tree-planting over the years to that end, including three small commercial sales. As the diameter of the thinned logs increased, John graduated from using a draft pony to a Belgian draft horse, and more recently, to an ATV or tractor-pulled logging arch. We hired a truck driver with a self-loader to haul our logs to a local mill. Although we never made much more than our wages off the sales, doing it ourselves allowed us to fit the work between other jobs. (And, it was a lot of fun, mostly.)

But even though we thought we knew what we were doing, having to actually write our long-term property goals down on paper precipitated a whole lot of soul-searching and discussion for us—just as I’d witnessed my class participants go through many times. The coached planning protocol encouraged us to not only clarify our somewhat nebulous goals more explicitly, but come up with some measurable ways to chart our progress towards them.

Pileated woodpecker on house
Pileated woodpecker on house eating western conifer seed bugs from siding. Photo: John Stuart

My husband is an avid birder, and especially enjoys spying on the local pileated woodpecker families in the neighborhood, an icon of northwest old growth. But as he learned more about their habitat needs, he came to realize that their presence was likely a result of being surrounded on three sides by over 600 acres of commercial timberland with abundant large trees and snags. We knew this neighboring landscape was destined to be logged in the near future. And that sparked the idea of managing a portion of our place as “core habitat” to help protect these populations over time, which became a unifying theme of our stewardship plan. John dug through a lot of research to develop specific goals to include in our plan—see his 2010 Diggings Newsletter article “Managing for Big Birds on a Small Acreage” for the details.

The beauty of Coached Stewardship Planning is that the emphasis on developing a plan specific to your own particular goals means that every plan is different. While we are using woodpecker habitat needs to determine where we cut firewood, place trails, log, plant trees, etc., we have friends whose plans center around providing cabins throughout the property for a religious order retreat center; others who manage primarily for harvesting medicinals and non-timber projects; and still others who are devoting much of their acreage for timber harvest timed to fund grandchildren’s college expenses. Like us, many of them have plans with goals that may extend beyond their own lifetimes.

And that brings us to the second forestry class offering that I highly recommend from our own personal experience—the “Ties to the Land” estate planning course. These sessions opened our eyes to how many obstacles the absence of a plan presents to kids who want to take over land ownership after their parents die. So we had the requisite family discussions and ended up converting our property to an LLC (one of many options discussed in the class) with our son and daughter as shareholders. Who knows what the future holds for any of us, but at least if the kids decide to hang on to the property after we’re gone, it will be a fairly straightforward process.

When it isn’t raining or snowing these days, you can usually find me out in the woods working on a trail system around the property with loppers and pruning saw. While the trail improvement is ostensibly for our 3-year-old granddaughter (“Nana—I don’t like pokey trails—is this going to be a nice trail?) I’ve been thoroughly enjoying myself, and we find we are making the rounds of our property almost daily. And yes, despite the clear-cut acreage that now surrounds our land, we often spot a big woodpecker with a bright red crest along the way.

by Carol Mack, WSU Kalispel Tribal Extension, cmack@wsu.edu