By Jim Haley Special to The Herald
When Walter Briggs first saw the size of the western hemlocks and Sitka spruce surrounding two lakes near Arlington, he was mightily impressed.
“I was struck by the magnificent, ancient trees,” he recalls.
At the time, in 1978, he was working with a regional Navy forester. In the early 1980s he took over as the West Coast’s head forester, managing some 15,000 forest acres owned by the military.
Briggs fell in love with 275 acres of that Navy land. It’s a plot of old-growth timber surrounding Twin Lakes, part of the Jim Creek Naval Radio Station land east of Arlington. Jim Creek is a communications facility for Pacific Ocean submarines.
His love for the ancient trees, some just seedlings in the 7th century A.D., was tempered by reality. The Navy owned the land, but not the timber rights to the biggest and most inspiring — and valuable — trees. He soon learned that the ancient trees, many more than 200 feet tall and sporting a girth of 10 or 11 feet, were in imminent danger.
That’s when he went to work, desperately trying to find a way to save them.
When the Navy bought the land for the radio station in 1950, former owner Soundview Pulp Co. retained the logging rights to merchantable timber at that time. By the 1980s, Scott Paper Co. owned those rights, and in 1984 Briggs began talks with Scott on the possibility of exchanging Navy second-growth timber elsewhere for the cutting rights to big trees.
He was persistent.
“I pestered them for several years, suggesting that Scott Paper gift the timber to the federal government for a tax deduction, or exchange it for second-growth of equal value,” Briggs wrote in his account of saving the huge trees. “I was determined to save the old-growth forest.”
What those who eyed the forest for lumber didn’t know is that Briggs, now 64, has unbounded energy, the enthusiasm of a golden retriever pup and the tenacity of a bear on the scent of honey.
A logging crew nearly came in during 1989 when Scott announced that it finally was going to harvest the old growth. But Briggs stalled the cutting with a reminder that the Navy still owned some of the smaller trees that were not “merchantable” timber in 1950, when the original land deal was done.
More survey work had to be done to determine which trees belonged to the Navy.
The Department of Defense had just created the Legacy Resource Management Program and allocated $10 million for use by all the services. Briggs immediately applied for the $3 million it would take to buy out Scott’s cutting rights.
At first, Pentagon officials laughed at Briggs for seeking so much, but Briggs leaned on old friendships to push his request up the chain of command. He went to Washington, D.C., where he made his case to an assistant Navy secretary by showing slides and bubbling enthusiasm for the project.
Once the logging crews arrived, he explained, the forest would be gone forever.
He was given the $3 million he needed to buy the trees. On top of that, Navy brass made sure Briggs’ work didn’t go unnoticed. In 2005, Briggs was surprised with a dedication ceremony at the edge of the forest. That was when he found out it was being named for him: The Walter R. Briggs Old Growth Forest Area.
One usually has to be a president, or dead for five years or more, before the military names something after a person, Briggs said. An exception was made in this case, and Briggs proudly recites the identification number for the forest as listed by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names — Feature ID 2079529.
There’s joy in Briggs’ voice when he’s in his forest, talking about the cycle of life of its many creatures, the carbon dioxide they absorb and the oxygen they release. To him, it’s an occasion to educate a visitor about some animal or lichen. He readily dips his hand into a murky bog and pulls out a root or handful of dark mud.
Hardly a Navy dignitary who has visited the Puget Sound area has escaped a sometimes muddy trek into Briggs’ forest. He’s always anxious to show them the giants that live there.
“I want to emphasize the majesty of the area,” Briggs said. “So I keep taking people out.”
There’s pride in what he has saved. Not to brag, but his accomplishment is also a life lesson about what a single person can do if he or she puts effort into it, he said.
“I think if I were a poet it would be easier to describe because it is not simply a matter of professional work. It’s not simply coring trees and determining their ages. It’s not just a matter of mapping the trees,” Briggs said.
It’s about a lot more.
“It’s been a personal work of love, not only for the forest but what it has to offer to everybody,” Briggs said. “You just stand there and look at these natural wonders and think about what’s been going on there for the last 500 or 1,000 or 1,500 years.”
Maybe the forest has been much the same all this time with occasional bears and cougars, squirrels and mice, slugs and snails, eagles and hawks.
There have undoubtedly been blow-downs and landslides. Maybe beavers have been even more active in the past and the lake level was once higher. Nature will take its course, but the land won’t be savaged by human hand.
“The benefit extends way beyond me,” Briggs said. “Generations to come can go in and see that forest intact as it is at that time. Will trees die? Yes. That’s what happens to trees. Others will grow. You’ve seen the understory, the saplings that are there. When one of the big ones falls somebody’s going to get more sunlight and take off. And after 400, 500 or 600 years it’s going to be a great big magnificent tree.”
Saving the forest is an accomplishment on many levels.
“Certainly on a professional level, a personal level, and emotional level a spiritual level it has been rewarding. It’s been wonderful to be part of saving something that special, that impresses people simply by walking into it and standing there and saying, ‘Oh, my gosh, look at that. That’s a big tree,’ ” Briggs said
“I’ve had foresters from back East who can’t believe the size of them. They’ve never seen anything that big. “They believe a tree 20 inches in diameter is big, he said.
“To come out and see these things that are 10 feet in diameter and over 200 feet tall, they are absolutely awe-struck,” Briggs said. “Which is fun to see.”
In part two of The Forest: For years, Herald journalists Jim Haley and Dan Bates had wanted to tell the story of one of our local old-growth forests. It took a few more years and some miserable, soggy hikes for them to reveal a bit of the ancient woods. In part two of this story, they’ll show and tell what they found there.