TULALIP — On the north end of the Tulalip Reservation last week, a man behind the controls of a large yellow excavator cut young Douglas firs at the base and processed them into logs.
The job on each foot-wide, 75-foot-tall tree took just over a minute. A claw-like tool sheared off evergreen
branches, leaving heaps of debris that smelled like a Christmas tree lot.
“The hardest thing to figure out is your tree selection,” said Roger Melton, the man behind the controls. “Getting the spacing right so you can have some light coming in.”
No, Melton wasn’t out to destroy the forest. His company was hired by the Tulalip Tribes to make the woods healthier, while harvesting some timber.
By thinning out weaker trees, they aimed to free up space for the remaining trees to grow larger. The work also allows more sunlight to reach the ground so that within a year, the formerly brown and sterile forest floor should sprout with green, giving animals a food source that otherwise would not have existed.
“We’re just accelerating what nature’s going to do in the long run anyway,” Tulalip Tribes forestry manager Jason Gobin said.
In late June, the tribes’ forestry department began grooming 88 acres of woods filled with stands of Douglas firs planted in the early 1980s. Loggers planned to whittle the area to an average density of 160 trees per acre, down from 400.
Gobin showed two slices of tree trunks from different patches of woods. One, from an unthinned area, was about 9 inches wide. The other, from an area where trees had been taken out, was at least 5 inches wider, giving the trunk about twice the volume of wood.
The Tulalip Tribes forestry department manages about 8,000 acres of woods on the 22,000-acre reservation. The work follows a blueprint that Tulalip leaders adopted in a 1978 Forest Management Plan.
“Many years ago, tribal leaders saw the value of retaining the interior core of the reservation in a forestry setting, helping to preserve cultural values and opportunities into the future,” said Glen Gobin, vice chairman of the Tulalip Tribes board of directors.
The tribes hope to reap financial rewards and estimate $3 million in annual revenue within 25 years. Local companies benefit, too. One is Melton’s, Precision Thinning, a two-man operation from Sedro-Woolley that did the recent thinning. Local paper and pulp mills also get more work.
Much of the area of the current Tulalip Reservation was logged about a century ago and later caught fire, Gobin said. After that, red alders and other hardwood trees replaced the old forest dominated by three main conifers: western hemlocks, Douglas firs and western red cedars.
A true old growth forest would take centuries to mature naturally. Scientists have been trying to figure out how to accelerate the process.
In nature, fire, lightning strikes, disease and windstorms might have created openings and variations in the density of trees. Forestry programs have been trying to achieve similar effects through thinning and varying the kinds of trees planted.
“The forest is a mosaic, so an acre might look pretty uniform but across there will be a mixture of conditions, a mixture of sites and a mixture of forest conditions,” said Candace Johnson, assistant division manager in the state Department of Natural Resources silviculture program. “Older forests have a huge amount of variation.”
Unlike most timber operations, the Tulalips’ work has a strong cultural component. That includes the seasonal gathering of plants for food, medicine, baskets and clothing.
The tribes’ forestry efforts also dovetail with work to bolster wildlife populations.
Since 2006, the tribes have been working on a wildlife meadows program. That’s allowed blacktail deer populations to grow. It’s also been good feeding ground for turkeys released onto the reservation. Another benefit of the meadows is thought to be that they keep animals away from peoples’ back yards. The tribe has about 13 acres of meadow, and has identified another 20 to 30 acres that could be converted to meadows in the future, said Mike Sevigny, Tulalip Tribes wildlife manager.
Once an area is cleared of trees and any remaining stumps, it’s planted much like a farmer’s field, Sevigny said. Soon, fall rye, chicory and various types of clover will grow to provide a rich foraging ground.
“We’ve provided the bottom of the food pyramid,” Sevigny said.
Tulalip wildlife managers also are applying their techniques in and around the towns of Hamilton, Lyman and Concrete in Skagit County.
Kevin Zobrist, a forestry expert with the local Washington State University Extension office, called the Tulalips’ program “one of the most innovative” in the region. He applauded their effort to balance environmental stewardship with commercial forestry.
“There is a cost to managing for wildlife and biodiversity instead of just timber production,” Zobrist said. “So that while I say you can do both, you are compromising … you are sacrificing what would have been the maximum revenue opportunity.”
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, firstname.lastname@example.org.