Northwest Trek, Eatonville, WA
By Jennifer Whitelaw
Northwest Trek is a 723-acre wildlife park near Eatonville. 435 of those acres feature a fenced in free-roaming area where native Northwest animals can be viewed from a moving tram. Take the tour and you will hear about the animals from one of the naturalists on staff. You will also hear about Northwest Trek’s efforts to steward their forest using sustainable forest management techniques.
In 2008 Northwest Trek achieved FSC® certification, the highest environmental standard in the world for forest management, through the Northwest Natural Resource Group’s (NNRG) Northwest Certified Forestry program. The majority of the property is forested and forest caretakers actively manage this forest for primarily for public safety and wildlife habitat.
The free-roaming area is thinned periodically to remove trees that may endanger either the animals or the tram system. The composition of the forest in this area is beginning to dramatically change, however, as maintenance manager Chip Heinz points out, because the animals tend to eat any young trees that either naturally regenerate in the area, or that are planted by maintenance staff. Protecting newly planted trees would require substantial and unnatural looking structures, so the park is wrestling with how to keep the free roaming area forested into the future.
A recent timber thinning project outside the free-roaming area, however, has received an unequivocal hoofs- and paws-up from the local wildlife that utilize the remainder of the forest. Northwest Trek site manager Dave Ellis says that many more wild animals and birds have moved into the area since they started implementing their forest management plan. By using a combination of thinning and creating small patch cuts within and extremely dense Douglas-fir forest has created a new environment that is more accommodating of a wider diversity of wildlife species. Although these animals can’t cross the barriers into the free-roaming area, they’re welcome to use the rest of the property.
“People look to Northwest Trek as a conservation leader,” said Dave, explaining why certifying the forest at Northwest Trek was so important to the park and Metro Parks Tacoma, the public agency responsible for overseeing Northwest Trek. Dave and Chip say that certification helps them raise the bar of sustainable practices, and that the public is appreciative of their efforts.
“The public is more and more concerned with sustainability,” said Chip, adding that other land owners, especially those interacting with the public or looking for a higher value niche market for their wood products, should look into FSC certification as soon as they can.
Although Northwest Trek is publicly owned and operated, and therefore not motivated to produce a profit from timber harvesting, they were able to make enough money from the first sale of certified timber to help improve trails, plant some new species and augment their interpretive work. Additionally, some of the alder was sold to Alexander’s Lumber Mill in Onalaska. Alexander’s is a local family run mill that recently became FSC certified in order to diversify their product line and remain economically viable in a depressed lumber market.
Dave and Chip both care deeply that people come to understand that even native forests need to be managed. “The illusion,” says Dave, “is that nature will take its natural course and everything will be fine, but that’s not what’s happening. Animals and forests need attention as we’ve influenced both so much over time.” Chip added, “The quality of life we enjoy depends upon keeping habitats intact.”
Northwest Trek’s staff and board have made a concerted effort to make healthy and diverse habitat the primary focus of their interpretive program, and to teach visitors how animals and plants live together in the various habitats at the park.
One visitor expressed concern when she saw small piles of forest debris from a recent thinning scattered throughout the forest. But when a naturalist explained to her that the piles actually created habitat for birds, amphibians and small mammals, and were an alternative to burning the debris, she was delighted with the creative ways the park was implementing its forest management program.
Northwest Trek’s forest management plan includes diversifying and re-naturalizing their forest area. In 1924, the park and much of the surrounding area burned in a major fire. What re-grew was almost exclusively Douglas fir, and it grew in such concentrations that the dense tree canopy prevented other species from taking root. Root rot and other forest health issues have also been an increasing problem due to the density of the trees.
Since then, Dave, Chip and the rest of their team have thinned some of the Douglas fir and introduced additional native tree and shrub species. They say that some people were startled by the first thinning, which happened in the entrance area to the park. However, now that the understory vegetation has grown back and much of the logging debris has broken down, visitors would be hard pressed to notice that the area had recently been thinned.
The true test came when one of the park’s original benefactors and former owner of the land, the late Connie Hellyer, came to take a look. Six months after the thinning, Connie visited and said it looked “wonderful.”
“She was the most critical eye,” said Dave.
Northwest Trek’s forest management plan is tied to a 20 year master plan for the park, which, among other things, calls for extending the nature trail around the entire park. As with all their efforts, the staff of Northwest Trek and Metro Parks Tacoma, as well as the park’s volunteers, hopes to promote diversity and sustainability, public and animal safety and enhanced habitat.
Volunteers play an important role in maintaining the park, and anyone interested is encouraged to visit the “get involved” section of the Northwest Trek website for more information.
Northwest Trek’s partnership with NNRG has helped it to fulfill its mission as a leader in sustainable resource management. Initially the wildlife park worked with NNRG to earn FSC certification for the park’s forest. As part of the certification process, Kirk Hanson, the South Sound Manager for NNRG’s Northwest Certified Forestry Program, worked with Northwest Trek to develop a new comprehensive forest management plan and forest monitoring program. More recently NNRG and Northwest Trek have teamed up to host a training seminar on forest inventorying and monitoring, as well as a presentation and tour on the ecological forestry principles that are being implemented at the park. Northwest Trek continues to be interested in working with NNRG to host educational seminars at the park and use the park as a model for teaching purposes.
On the one hand, says Dave, “we can say we have the best practices, the most sustainable practices, but it’s really just about what makes sense.”