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Saving forests, making lumber
When the head of Vashon Forest Stewards led a group through the woods next to Chautauqua Elementary School last July, trying to explain why it is that cutting some trees would save the forest, he could tell one Islander — a teacher with a keen interest in nature — was critical of the effort.
“Some people don’t think you should ever cut a tree down,” Dave Warren recalled.
But Warren, an intense man with a passion for the ecological health of forests, pressed on. And part way through the tour, the naturalist who had shown up that day to challenge the project appeared to have a change of heart.
“She threw up her hands and said, ‘I get it, I get it,’” Warren said with a laugh.
Chalk one up for the Forest Stewards.
For a decade, Warren has been striving to get people to understand what might, at first blush, seem like two contradictory goals — promoting forest health and milling and selling Island wood. But by marrying the two, Warren said, the small organization is both improving Vashon’s forests and giving Islanders a more sustainable option for some of their construction needs.
The small nonprofit is now tackling its largest project to date: the thinning of the school district’s 50-acre forest next to Chautauqua, milling of much of its wood to accent the new high school. But he’s quick to point out that the project is, first and foremost, about forest health and student safety.
“The wood product is a byproduct of the restoration effort, which is our primary goal,” he said.
At the same time, Warren is pleased that the modest operation is finding traction on the Island, beginning to have an impact and is now a player in the biggest construction project on Vashon.
“It’s an amazing story that we’ve come as far as we have,” Warren said last week, “that we have grown, and now we’re at the school forest.”
King Coun-ty’s forester also thinks the story of the Forest Stewards story is an impressive one. Bill Loeber, one of two foresters for the county, said he knows of no other locally based group that is involved in every step of the forest-thinning process and that actively promotes good forest management, taking time to help even those with small parcels of land be good stewards.
“I wish there were other communities that had that type of group that is that organized and engaged. It really helps us get our messages across,” he said.
Decades ago Vashon’s forests, like most in the Northwest, were almost completely clear cut. Since then, forests have grown in unnaturally, Warren said. In some places trees are crowded and sick. In others a thick canopy blocks light to the understory. And at many forests harmful invasive plants have taken hold.
The Forest Stewards have now managed thinning operations on roughly 2 percent of the forested land on Vashon. The best of the wood is processed at the Forest Stewards’ own lumber yard near town and sold for use as appearance-grade wood in Island construction projects.
“Many forest owners on the Island have in fact taken steps to take better care of their forests and replant them,” said board member Jack Stewart. “And quite a few Island homes have Island wood built into them.”
At the same time, it’s been a tough decade, Warren said. Forest stewardship isn’t a money-making business, and while the group recoups some of its expenses through the milling operation, it also relies heavily on private donations and grants and has never been able to pay its four part-time employees, who work at the mill, as much as it would like.
“My guys don’t make real good money, but they believe in it,” Warren said.
The Vashon Forest Stewards began in 2002 when Warren, who was director of the Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust during its formative years, decided to expand his work writing forest management plans. He joined efforts with a few other Islanders — Stewart, Fred Sayer and Joel Kuperberg — who also wanted to see Vashon landowners equipped with better tools to manage their personal forests.
“We decided we were going to be that group to help landowners,” he said.
The Forest Stewards had a rocky beginning as the men attempted to do much of the thinning they prescribed themselves and worked to develop their own methods rather than consult logging experts. They now hire logging companies to do the actual thinning work.
“We were so stupid and naïve,” recalled Stewart. “We reinvented the wheel 16 different times.”
In 2004 the Forest Stewards leased a county-owned property behind Sawbones, where it began a small mill using borrowed equipment at first. Around the same time, Derek Churchill, an Islander who studied forestry at the University of Washington and is now working toward his PhD there, came on board to provide his expertise.
By 2006, the group finally seemed to have hit its stride as it took on its largest thinning project to date, the 30-acre woods at Agren Park.
The thinning was controversial, Warren recalled, and the Vashon Park District board at the time struggled over whether to approve it. But the Vashon community had grown more aware of the need for best forest stewardship practices, he said, and many took hazard trees far more seriously after a tragic accident in 1998, when a girl was killed by a falling tree during a hike at Camp Sealth.
The project was a go, and everyone who used Agren Park seemed happy with the result, Warren said. He heard some people say it didn’t even look like the forest had been thinned.
“That was our only complaint. It was too nice of job,” he said with a laugh.
Last week the Vashon Forest Stewards’ lumber yard buzzed with activity as a few workers began to process timber from the school district’s forest.
Two men ran rough boards through a noisy planer. Sayer, who along with other board members often donates his time at the yard, moved logs with the giant arm of the log truck. And all around the yard, boards were stacked and waiting to be put in the large, walk-in kiln to be dried.
Warren, taking a break from his own work, pointed to large stacks of fir, alder and madrone removed in the thinning over the summer. Eventually the logs — the better half of the 20 truckloads removed from the forest — will be processed for use in the new Vashon High School. The other half was sold to an off-Island mill to help cover the cost of the project.
“This will be a conference table,” Warren said with a smile, referring to a 4-foot madrone board waiting to go into the kiln.
The use of the wood in the new school has already become a point of pride for the district. Rather than bury it inside the walls of the school, the district’s design team has chosen to use the appearance-grade fir, alder and madrone in highly visible places, such as in wall paneling, shelves or handrails.
The school district didn’t quite break even by selling half the wood it harvested from its forest, Warren said. But the wood it held on to will look beautiful in the new building and will be a visible reminder of when the district thinned the forest and used the wood, part of its growing commitment to sustainability.
“You’ll be able to see it and touch it daily,” Warren said.
Like the school district, landowners who complete ecological thinnings on their properties rarely come out on top, Warren said. And those who purchase the Island wood the Forest Stewards offer could usually save money by buying from another lumber yard.
But Forest Stewards wood, Stewart said, typically priced 10 to 15 percent more higher than that of other lumber yards, is also a better product. The wood harvested on Vashon has grown naturally and not at a commercial logging operation, where growers put quantity over quality.
“Our wood is not comparable to the wood that comes from clear cuts, plus we didn’t have to clear cut the forest to get it.”
While many Islanders are willing to pay a higher price for local products, the Forest Stewards still struggle to scrape by. Warren, who called his career with the Forest Stewards a labor of love, does seasonal maintenance work at the parks just to make ends meet. But promoting healthy forests and working to keep Island wood on the Island is simply the right thing to do, Warren said.
Stewart agreed. A contractor with a long career in home building, Stewart said it pains him to see logs shipped around the world for processing and sale and to see old-growth forests in British Columbia clear cut for construction in the Northwest.
“It’s diminishing forests on Vancouver Island and coastal British Columbia. There’s very little of it left,” he said. “Most of the guys who build houses don’t think or care about that very much. They think about what the owners think about, which is the price of wood.”
The Vashon Forest Stewards now sell $30,000 to $50,000 of wood a year. The timber revenue doesn’t begin to cover their costs — the organization struggles to pay its workers; board members donate their time and money, and they keep a wish list of milling equipment.
But seeing Island wood installed in homes, and now in an Island school, they say, makes the struggles worth it.
“It’s kind of uphill all the way,” Stewart said. “We’re still pushing the thing down the runway.”