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Read an Excerpt of our Forthcoming Book: Everyone’s Guide to Ecological Forestry

A new and unique project is underway for NNRG: we’re writing a book! Co-authored by NNRG’s Executive Director Seth Zuckerman and Director of Forestry Kirk Hanson, and published by Mountaineers Books, the book will be a “how-to” manual for forest owners that teaches them to notice the natural qualities of their land, decide how to care for it, and roll up their sleeves to keep it healthy for the next generation. The anticipated publication date is spring 2024.

The introduction to the book—authored by Seth Zuckerman—is published below.

I cut my forest teeth during the late 1980s and ’90s, a time known on the West Coast as the Timber Wars. That’s when it became inescapably clear that timber harvest was decimating the few ancient forests that remained, hardly more than a century after lumberjacks first arrived in the region. Environmental activists raised the alarm that apart from a few small preserves in state and national parks, the grandeur of western forests was at risk, along with the habitat they provide for creatures ranging from spotted owls to steelhead trout and slender salamanders. On the other side of this concern for old-growth forests, loggers and millworkers saw a threat to their livelihoods, and the forest industry sensed a threat to its bottom line. Battle lines were drawn.

You could see the conflict in any town on the coast, from Fort Bragg, California, to Bellingham, Washington, expressed in a counterpoint of bumper stickers: a clenched first shouting “Earth First!” on the one side, “Earth First — we’ll log the other planets later” on the other. “Save the Old-Growth” on the Subaru station wagon, and “Wipe your ass with a spotted owl” on the Ford F-150. I have to admit that the wittiest ones always seemed to come from the logging side: “Spotted owl tastes like chicken” and my personal favorite, “Hug a logger — you’ll never go back to trees.”

But among that wide selection of slogans, I never found one that resonated for me to the point that I would put it on my own car. Trees are a renewable resource, and can provide the raw materials for roofs over our heads and chairs under our butts — with much less environmental impact than steel, concrete or plastic. And yet the old-growth forests were irreplaceable on any human time scale. I could walk among these towering trees and feel both small and at peace, moved in a way that transcended what I felt when I hiked through a meadow or younger forest. To cut the last of these magnificent forests was to waste a legacy that our generation had been put temporarily in charge of. So how to distinguish good, thoughtful logging from rapacious liquidation of our natural heritage? I wanted to communicate that I understood the need to harvest some timber, but I also appreciated the other jobs a tree can do besides becoming a 2 x 4.

The answer I came up with, which I blocked out in thick felt pen on a sheet of Rite-in-the-Rain paper and taped onto the back of my VW bug, was “cut trees, not forests.” In a sense, the work I’ve done in forestry ever since is an exploration of how to translate that idea into action.

Over time, that quest led me to embrace an approach — developed by luminary scientists such as the University of Washington’s Jerry Franklin and Oregon State University’s Norm Johnson — called “ecological forestry.” Seen through that lens, the forest isn’t just a wood factory or the equivalent of a cornfield with taller plants — it’s a whole system entrusted to its current human stewards, who are tasked with caring for it until it’s time to hand off to the next care-takers. In the meantime, we may harvest what the forest can spare while still maintaining its integrity — all of its parts and the intricate connections between them. When our turn is done, the forest passes on to the next set of stewards — either by sale or inheritance for private forests, or turnover of staff and leadership in the case of corporate or public forests. Either way, the forest will likely outlive anyone who is looking after it at the moment.

In 2017, I found a perch from which to advocate this approach at Northwest Natural Resource Group, a Seattle-based non-profit that has been promoting better stewardship of Oregon and Washington forests since 1992. For most of the previous two decades, I had written about forests, salmon, energy and other aspects of the Northwest’s resource economy, getting a chance to see what innovations were being tried from northern California all the way to the Alaskan panhandle. Now here was a chance to be part of a team that was spreading the good word and demonstrating its impact on the ground. That’s where I met Kirk Hanson, NNRG’s director of forestry, who has led the organization’s on-the-ground work with landowners for many years. From workshops to management plans, site visits with landowners to demonstrations of how to use a chainsaw, Kirk has been teaching people how to care for their forests for more than twenty years — first with the Washington Department of Natural Resources, and since 2006 with NNRG. It was with Kirk that I hatched the idea for the book you hold in your hands, and we have created it together, as a way to collect what we have learned about the stewardship of forests and pass it along.

If you live in the Pacific Northwest, forests are likely in your blood, or at least in the view out your window. They are the signature feature of our landscape, like volcanoes in Iceland, grasslands in Kansas, cacti in the Southwest. This book will help you understand them and learn how to take care of them. If you own a forest — or even a patch of trees in your backyard — this book will give you information that you can immediately put to use. If you are thinking about buying a piece of forested land, this book will help you identify what to look for so that the forest you own will meet your combination of goals, means, and desires. Even if you don’t fall into either of those categories, all of us Northwesterners have a stake in the forests that are managed on our behalf by the state and federal governments. Quite a few of us are constituents of county and municipal forests as well. Whatever the forest that is near to your heart, this book will help you discern how to care for it.

Like the care of any patch of ground that we want to coax to a particular use — tomato bed, pea patch, rose garden — forestry requires an understanding of how myriad factors of soil, sun, water, and beneficial species come together to produce the plant community we desire. But compared to those crops, forests are unique in their longevity. If you sow tomatoes, however well or badly your plants produce, you’ll likely get a chance to try again next year. But forests call upon us to think across longer time scales, to consider the next custodians of these woods, and to enrich the variety of options they can choose from when it is their turn as stewards. Broadening that portfolio of future choices is especially important as climate change accelerates and shifts the very conditions that made forests possible.

What’s more, forests are diverse, interconnected communities of fungi, soil microbes, invertebrates, birds, mammals, amphibians, and yes, trees. Many of those connections have just come to light in the last few decades, as scientists have developed the tools to track the flow of nutrients and water through the intricate web of life that lies beneath the soil, have learned to ascend into the forest canopy with climbing gear, and have thought to simply pay attention with tools no more sophisticated than a pair of binoculars and a field notebook. A basic premise of ecological forestry is that all of those parts contribute in some way to the health of the forest as a whole. As conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote,[1] “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

 

[1] In his essay “Round River,” in A Sand County Almanac.

In this book, we will show you the myriad cogs and wheels that whir together in a Northwest forest and drive it forward into the future. As intricate and awe-inspiring as the processes at work in the forest are, they aren’t that complicated — just ignored or glossed over as we go about our busy human lives, which unfold at a pace that must look frenetic from the perspective of a 600-year-old cedar tree. It all takes place in a context that is at once ecological, historical, and economic — economic because the value of Northwest trees in commerce has determined much of the trajectory of these forests since the mid-19th century; historical because the forests we see today are the product of the epochs-long path they have traveled; and ecological because it is the combination of climate, soil, flora, and fauna that shapes the potential of each forest in the Northwest.

With an understanding of the context, we will help you see deeper into the forest. You’ll get to know it better by looking more closely at the canopy, the understory, and the roads and streams running through the woods. You’ll look for threats such as signs of insect infestation, tree diseases, and invasive species, and we’ll talk about the economic possibilities that come with forest ownership. Once you are armed with those observations, we’ll equip you to make a sketch of the possibilities inherent in your forest and your intentions for it — what we call a “rapid assessment” — and then a full management plan. Since forests are such long-lived systems, it pays to take the time to become familiar with your forest and make a plan for how you will manage it over years to come.

Next, we’ll explain how to put those intentions into practice for your forest or backyard woodland. We’ll describe how you can establish a new stand of trees and protect it from deer that would eat it or from the salmonberry or salal that would engulf it. Once the seedlings turn into saplings, controlling their density becomes the next important task, and we’ll show you different ways to keep them not too crowded but not too sparse, either. You’ll learn about ways to improve the timber value of your forest, to make it more useful to wildlife, and how to protect it from catastrophic fire. Here’s where we will talk about different ways to harvest trees for timber, too, and how that harvest shapes the possibilities that the forest will provide in the future. Where the previous sections answered the why and the what, this one lays out the how. We’ll help you distinguish, too, between projects you can take on yourself and those that will require you to enlist the help of skilled and better-equipped professionals.

The fourth section talks about the many rewards of forest ownership, and how to reap them — from the more obscure, such as floral greens, mushrooms, and medicinal plants, to the more obvious, such as timber harvest or trail construction. Some of these rewards are at least partly altruistic. We’ll talk about the satisfaction that can come from dedicating your land to conservation purposes through agreements that restrict what you and succeeding owners can do with the forest. These agreements can be designed for a wide spectrum of purposes: to protect songbird or salmon habitat, to store more carbon in the forest so it isn’t in the atmosphere aggravating climate change, or simply to safeguard your favorite patch of woods from urban development in perpetuity.

Finally, we’ll conclude by looking at forests for the long haul. How do you find a forest to build a long-term relationship with? We’ll explore how to find forestland for sale, and how to evaluate its pros and cons. Since trees can live for several human lifetimes, forestry invites long-term thinking. By the end of this century, a tree planted today will experience a climate that is quite different from the weather patterns that prevailed in the 1900s. Anticipating that change calls on forest stewards to think adaptively, so as to conjure greater resilience in their forest. The longevity of trees also means that a forest’s current owners need to think about how to hand it off to its next caretakers, whether it be family members or purchasers. The forest is a living system that could outlast you and even your grandchildren … and there’s a line to walk between making clear your goals and guardrails, while also trusting the next generation to rise to the challenges that become evident a decade or five into the future.

The Pacific Northwest is an outstanding place to raise a forest. The trees in this region are amazing — unsurpassed in the quality of their wood, their grandeur at full age, and their longevity. Connecting with these forests — not just as hikers, skiers, or mountain bikers, but as stewards who care for a patch of Northwestern woods — is an adventure that we have found deeply satisfying, and are excited now to share it with you.

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