Family sells farm, but stands tall for its trees

ARLINGTON — Like a vintner who knows each of his grapevines, Lee Taylor can identify the vintages of the fir trees at the Bear Creek Tree Farm.

The shades of green, the height, signal the coming harvest measured not in seasons but in decades.

Acre upon acre, he and his wife, Pat, planted thousands of the trees by hand.

Every six feet, up and down ravines. Then the sun and generous rain did the rest.

Taylor, who turns 64 this year, looked out across the rolling hillside east of Arlington near Jim Creek earlier this week. Much of the farm’s 985 acres are covered with young, third-growth fir trees.

It’s time for the Taylors to part with the land, a place where they cultivated memories since the 1950s. They raised two daughters here, and Lee Taylor built his own log cabin home — octagonal with two wings, like a bird flying south.

It’s hard for him to think he won’t be stomping around on the property any more.

“Change is inevitable,” he said. “We had a good run here.”

Taylor and his two sisters, Nancy Taylor Mason and Mary Ellen Hogle, could have sold to housing developers. They didn’t.

The state Department of Natural Resources bought the land for about $4.1 million with plans to harvest and replant trees forever.

“The deed is done and we’re glad for it,” Taylor said. “We could have gotten more money if we developed it, but how much do you need?”

It’s a legacy Taylor hopes will keep churning out oxygen for city dwellers. Also, as trees come and go, the land will sustain an industry that provides jobs for loggers and cash for the state school construction trust fund.

Knowing that, Taylor finds himself at peace.

He and state officials said they are watching as forests disappear around the world, including in British Columbia, where disease and infestation are rampant.

Forests become more valuable as others are cut down and redeveloped, they argue.

“It’s shortsighted of the urban person to think they live outside the matrix of the natural world,” Taylor said this week during a tour of the tree farm with state and county officials.

Since 1980, 17 percent of forest land in the state has changed to development or other uses. Properties are worth up to 20 times more for development than for timber production.

The forests near Arlington and Granite Falls are incredibly vulnerable to development pressure, state Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland said.

It took the state five years to find the money to buy the Taylors’ land. The property was targeted under a new state initiative to link up blocs of state forest land and halt encroaching development.

As growth spreads east, new neighborhoods leapfrog some rural state forest land. That makes it harder to harvest trees without grief from neighbors.

The purchase of Bear Creek Tree Farm starts to draw a protective line in the sand for the state’s forests, said Bill Wallace of the Department of Natural Resources.

The tree farm dates back to the 1930s. The old growth forest was logged off between 1915 and 1922, Taylor said. The Kahn family, who owned the property first, wanted to raise deer for the Army and Canadian black beaver, he added.

It didn’t work out. The Kahns spent their days keeping their herds penned up and safe from hunters, Taylor said.

Del and Mae Taylor bought the land with a partner from the Kahns in 1950.

Lee Taylor grew up in the business. He moved away and earned an English literature degree. The only college he wanted to work at closed before he had the chance. At the time, there was a push in America to get back to the land, he said, so he started working for the family timber company in 1961.

The Taylors planted up to 500 fir trees per acre. The gaps filled with alder. Once torn out as worthless, alder now fetches up to $12,000 an acre for 8-inch diameter trees.

Taylor left the land in 1980 and moved to a cattle ranch in British Columbia. Trees continued to be planted and harvested in the intervening years.

Whenever a crop is ready, chainsaws whine and buzz as logging trucks power up and down steep gravel roads. The sound carries across the valleys, Taylor said.

The deal with the state means the sounds will only be as far away as the next harvest.

Reporter Jeff Switzer: 425-339-3452 or jswitzer@heraldnet.com.

Forest land facts

Snohomish County has about 1.3 million acres of land.

There are an estimated 251,000 acres of non-federal commercial forest land in the county, about equally divided between state trust lands (121,000 acres) and private forests (129,000).

An estimated 52,000 acres of non-federal commercial forest land was converted for development between 1988 and 2004, according to the University of Washington.

From 2003 to 2007, private landowners applied to remove an average 2,332 acres per year from private timber production in the county, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. That’s not counting development that happened on forest land without an application to the state.

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