“We really like the forest and want to talk about it,” said Jessica McDonald.
McDonald, chairwoman of the Watershed Management Advisory Board, was standing on the east flank of Marys Peak, about 1,000 feet up, on a warm evening with just wisps of clouds in the skies above.
McDonald was the first speaker at the annual tour of the city’s Rock Creek watershed. The event gives residents a chance to view a municipal treasure that uses a securely locked gate to limit access.
Eighty people participated (15 more were on a waiting list), with many of them ready with questions for a series of presenters that discussed various facets of the forest at a series of tour stops.
Stop 1 included a new wrinkle for the tour, now in its ninth year. A short trail was carved off to the side of a rutted forest road to get participants closer to some of the forest’s older trees. The ground was crunchy and mulchy, with a fat slug perched on dead wood and black-and-yellow millipedes moseying about among the moss.
As the tour moved down the ridge Charlie Bruce of the watershed board spotted a bald eagle flying overhead. Mark Miller of Trout Mountain Forestry, which manages the watershed for the city, pointed in the direction of the bird’s nest … then talked some more about the forest.
“Our stewardship plan calls for three types of forests: middle-aged, plantation and old growth and older,” Miller said, while pointing toward a 180-year-old Douglas fir, the oldest tree in this stand.
“We have some trees that are 300 to 500 years old, but you only get one or two of those per acre.”
The city has been receiving drinking water from the area since 1906, but it wasn’t until after the start of the 21st century that the city put a plan in place to manage the forest. Miller notes that the first harvesting of trees took place in the 1920s and 1930s, “with the practices of the time: clear-cutting.”
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“Our goal is forest health and resiliency from fire, wind, insects and disease,” Miller said. “Without a forest we don’t have good water quality. And a healthy forest needs timber harvests.”
Miller then explains the cable-yarding approach that was used in its latest harvest, which ran from November of 2014 to January of 2015.
“Operating in winter avoids the impact on (endangered) marbled murrelets and northern spotted owls,” Miller said. “We thinned 30 to 45 percent, but we left the best trees. We harvested 250 truck loads on a 60-acre site.”
The income from the harvests is plowed back into the watershed to protect habit and water quality.
Then Miller answered more questions. How will Trout Mountain reseed? How do you make the forest more fire resistant? Are there greater fire risks now because of climate change?
Miller delved into speculation: “Maybe the Douglas fir is not going to be the best tree in the forest in the future. Things might change.”
The tour moved on to an area near Rock Creek, where participants received demonstrations from students who took part in a day camp last August that emphasized watershed science and educational programs.
Visible via a short scramble trial at the same stop was a new culvert that the city installed to help make passage easier for cutthroat trout stocks.
“Rock Creek didn’t have the gravelly bottom we were hoping for, and the lips of the culverts were too high for the fish,” said Jennifer Ward, city watershed program specialist. “We replaced the culverts and opened up eight miles of habitat."
Helicopters also dropped logs — 88 of them, Miller said — into Rock Creek to help produce shade and areas of refuge for the trout.
Then, Miller answered more questions … on ground disturbance and reseeding, invasive species and the advantages of cities owning their own watersheds.