Monday, June 11, 2012

Meeting the Bull of the Woods

I’m no stranger to logging operations in Washington.  I spent 5 years working as a member of a 50-person reforestation collective planting trees on clear cuts throughout the Pacific Northwest.  So when I was invited to attend the 29th annual “Woods Tour,” sponsored by Whatcom Women in Timber, I jumped at the chance.  I was especially excited to learn about different aspects of forest management with such a diverse audience, including loggers, foresters, politicians, community owners, and the general public.

After opening remarks at the Deming Log Show grounds, almost 100 people boarded school buses and headed up the middle fork Nooksack River to view active logging operations.  On the way we paused to watch giant machines working a “ground based logging operation.”  On the crest of a hill a feller-buncher approached, cut, and placed trees in neat piles, and a processor-shovel stripped branches and bark off each tree at breath-taking speeds.

Rumbling onward various experts explained how DNR forestry staff layout timber sales and manage streams.  A DNR forester pointed down a valley, explaining that the area we were driving through was a sale unit which contained over 60 streams.  She went on to say that laying out these sales was a complex because of streams, steep slopes, and other issues.  Unstable areas were “out of bounds” for logging and certain kinds of streams required 50 foot buffers.  New requirements mandated best management practices to prevent siltation of streams, such as large culverts, crushed gravel next to culverts, rock check dams in ditches, new bridges, grass seeding of side ditches, and mulching along streams.  We saw lots of these practices along the roads, and all the water running along the roads looked clear.

At this point I was very aware that the bus seats were for kids with short legs.  I heard this statement several times “Whatcom county is a timber county.”  I kept writing.  We learned that only one operating mill remains in Whatcom county, and no pulp mills operate in our county.  The timber industry is hard hit for many reasons.  People aboard the bus were concerned about losing their timber base because of lands set aside for marbled murrelets, a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. One speaker described the marbled murrelet as “not a very smart bird” because it nests up to 50 miles from the ocean near the tops of old growth trees on branches at least five inches thick.  At this point I had to change pens because I was writing so much that my pen went dry.

Next stop - Longview Timber’s land, just below the snowfields on the Twin Sisters peaks.  We piled out of the bus, put on orange hardhats and vests and walked around muddy roads shivering and watching the clouds, hoping for a break in the clouds.  It rained instead.  People put on hats under their hardhats.  The forester from Longview Timber explained how the sale was planned out, and the contractor who was working the unit explained cable yarding methods, and explained different logging methods and equipment used.  This speaker was no ordinary logger; he was Bill Blockley, the newest “Bull of the Woods.”  Bill is the 50th “Bull of the Woods,” a great honor.  (The Bull of the Woods honor is traditionally given to someone who has spent a lot of time working in the logging business, and the nominations are voted on by Deming Logging Show members at a February meeting.)  Bill spoke to us about a lifetime of woods work, and about the changes he’s seen during his life as a logger and logging company owner.

Next stop: the Olivine Mine, high up on the middle fork Nooksack valley. Corky Smith, who owns the mine, explained how the rock was mined and then refined into sand for use as foundry sand.  He also pointed out environmental controls, such as two orderly sediment ponds below us.

On the way down the hill towards lunch we learned more about how timber sales are planned, how riparian zones around streams are protected, and a bit about the intake dam for Lake Whatcom on the middle fork.  During lunch, even more speakers.  Here are some of the statements from lunch, “Whatcom County has too many parks,” and “Foresters are the most environmental people around,” and “I can’t think of any better stewards of our lands than farmers and foresters,” and “If we not utilizing our natural resources we’re not going to achieve economic recovery.”  Lunch was fantastic, some people even sipped wine, we loaded back onto the buses, and headed to the last stop, the Mitchell Family forest farm.

The Mitchell Family farm was homesteaded in 1881 and is an example of small landowner forest management.  The trees here were huge, the sun came out, and we could see Mitchell Creek sparking below.  We learned about various aspects of selective logging, forest genetics, seed collection, riparian zones, forest hydrology, and other topics.  One of the speakers at this stop said this, “One reason we clear-cut is to promote growth of Douglas Fir, which requires sunlight,” and then this, “The best thing for water quality and quantity is to harvest the trees, because it gets water back into the aquifer.”

The end of the day arrived too soon because the buses were needed to pick up kids at 2:30.  It was a very well organized and fascinating tour.  I learned a lot and will be thinking about many of these issues for a long time.  Thanks for reading!

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