For years, Tod and Gerie Lemkuhl loved exploring Mount Rainier National Park and dreamed of some-day stewarding a wild forest akin to the park’s cathedrals of lush old-growth. Seven years ago they knew it was time to turn “someday” into reality. So they sold their home in Seattle, purchased 20 acres of forest near Eatonville and started to get to know the land. As the Lemkuhls embarked on their journey, they learned to use active management to steward the forest of their dreams.
At first the Lemkuhls got to know their forest by camping out and spending time building trails, removing invasive species such as Scots broom and Himalayan blackberry, and planting more trees. Tod and Gerie characterize their early years on the land as hands-off and driven by the belief that nature knows how to take care of itself. They wanted their forest to grow into big trees of diverse age classes, with nurse logs and the mix of species that defines mature and old-growth forests of the western Cascades. However, they had purchased a tract of former industrial timberland composed of even-aged Douglas-fir trees – meaning the forest was on a slow path to the structurally-complex species-richness of a natural wild stand.
They began attending classes and workshops to learn about forest ecology and took tours of forests where other landowners had applied ecologically-based management principles. Tod recalls realizing that “Wow, doing nothing isn’t necessarily a very wise approach. It got me thinking about how my property was being managed by the timber company with a specific purpose in mind.”
Through the classes, the Lemkuhls learned that one way for them to maintain a healthy forest and accelerate the growth of big trees was to selectively remove many of the suppressed and dying trees on their land. By thinning out some of the trees, they could help the forest release limited resources and distribute nutrients and space for neighboring trees to grow bigger, faster and let light reach the understory where it would stimulate shrub and flower growth.
After acquiring a neighboring 20-acre tract of forest about 4 years ago, the Lemkuhls decided to assess the condition of their forest and organize their management goals by creating a forest management plan. They applied to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to offset the costs of developing a Conservation Activity Plan. EQIP is a cost-share program through the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) that provides financial assistance to landowners for projects that enhance the ecological value of their land. Grants can fund activities as small as habitat pile construction, pruning and installing bird boxes or as extensive as pre-commercial thinning, invasive species removal, and developing a comprehensive forest management plan.
Kirk Hanson, director of Northwest Certified Forestry, helped the Lemkuhls articulate their priorities, assessed their forest’s health and productivity, and then wrote the management plan. This helped the Lemkuhls to identify the steps and timeline to achieve their forest stewardship goals.
“One of our prime motivators for purchasing the property was the idea of being stewards of this little piece of heaven. We might not be able to control that much in the grand scheme of things but at least we can do something on this little patch,” says Tod.
Last year the Lemkuhls began implementing the activities to achieve their management objectives for their forest. They embarked on a thinning project on their original 20 acres and started to do young stand improvements and wildlife habitat enhancement projects on their newer 20 acres.
For the harvest project, consulting forester Rick Helman walked the forest with Tod and flagged each one of the smaller trees that would be cut. Tod credits this approach with helping him to envision the forest after the thinning. The harvest project on their 20-acre parcel took only a couple of weeks and created an open stand and gives Tod the feeling of, “So much space. I feel like I can run through the forest.” The couple can now access their entire property without having to fight their way through a dense tangle of trees and branches, and they’ve discovered boulders and old cedar stumps they didn’t know were out there. Those huge old stumps hint at the potential of the soil to grow a forest like the wild groves near Mount Rainier, rich in wildlife and plant diversity.
For the stand improvement and habitat enhancement work, the Lemkuhls applied for EQIP funds. “When I first heard about EQIP, it almost seemed too good to be true, and it seemed like a good fit for the habitat work that Geri and I wanted to do,” Tod recalls. A representative at the local NRCS office helped them with the grant application, and though Tod recalls being a bit apprehensive about signing the contract saying he would perform the work outlined, he doesn’t regret the decision. This year crews from Applied Ecology, removed small dying trees and Scotch broom in preparation for an upcoming planting of diverse native tree species. Next year they will build wildlife habitat piles.
Tod and Gerie have embraced an active approach to stewarding their forest. In the years to come, they will be watching the forest’s community of trees, shrubs, flowers, mosses, lichens, pollinators, and wildlife respond to the recent dynamic shifts in available light, nutrients, space. Overtime, their woods will have more in common with the park down the road.
For landowners who are new to owning forestland, Tod has this to share: “The biggest thing I’ve learned is that doing nothing may not be wise in terms of stands that are monocultures and more susceptible to disease, especially if your goals are like ours – restoring a diverse, healthy forest. But probably the best thing you can do is educate yourself, go to workshops like we did and go to other properties that have been thinned if that’s something you’re thinking about doing.”
Story by Andrea Watts and NNRG
Photos: Tod and Gerie Lemkuhl