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The future forest

by bdietrich on November 17, 2012

The small city of Anacortes, population 16,000, reputedly has more preserved forestland per capita than any municipality in the Lower 48.

This is one of the blessings of Fidalgo Island where I live. A million people a year rush across Fidalgo to board the ferry to the further San Juan islands. While parked in the ferry line, most of them don’t see the 2,800 acres and 50 miles of trails of our protected woodland, plus its multiple lakes, ponds, meadows, and rocky peaks.

Which is just as well, I suppose. The trails are busy enough.

I serve on the board of Friends of the Forest and recently co-taught a class to the city’s Senior College on the forest with Denise Crowe, a naturalist who has been leading educational hikes for adults and schoolchildren for a generation.

Most of the surviving forest on Fidalgo is second or third growth. Huge stumps from pioneer logging can still be seen with telltale springboard holes. The swollen base of the trees was too big to cut, so loggers would cut crude planks and insert them several feet high in slots sawn in the trunk. There they would balance to cut the titans down.

The regrowth means a lot of diversity. There are maturing stands of Douglas fir, cedar, and hemlock mixed with colonizing trees such as alder and big leaf maple. From mushrooms and wildflowers to beaver dams and bat caves, Denise has a splendid laboratory to excite kids.

Fidalgo also has one of the best surviving old growth stands in the Puget Sound basin, near Heart Lake. The trees are so high – a couple hundred feet – that their tops can’t be seen from below.

Nearby Mount Erie, 1,233 feet high, is a rocky hummock with imposing cliffs on its south side that are a favorite of rock climbers. On a clear day, you can see North Cascades, Olympic, and Mount Rainier National Parks from its summit, which you can drive to.

Whistle Lake, where teens jump from the cliffs in summer, is deep enough and clean enough that it was once the city’s drinking water supply.

The forested acreage was preserved over the past decade by more than $2 million in donations to purchase conservation easements on the forest, at a rate of $1,000 an acre. This halted city logging. Skagit Land Trust manages the easements.

Adding to the forested reservoir is Deception Pass State Park to the south, Washington Park on the island’s northwest corner, Cap Sante Park on the city’s east side, and a heron preserve and the Swinomish Indian Reservation to the southeast. The network sustains deer, beaver, porcupine, raccoon, mink, otter, coyote, and a host of bird species.

The forest has my back. My home faces west to the San Juan Islands and is surrounded by a mini forest itself, of a dozen different species. That is fortunate enough, but it’s reassuring that Fidalgo behind me is more green than developed, even with its oil refineries and boatyards.

Some of this is luck. Fidalgo is a rocky island scraped bare by Ice Age glaciers and is unsuited for agriculture. It is far enough from Seattle to escape suburban sprawl. The forest became the city’s early watershed after initial logging. Washington State saved Heart Lake from development by acquiring it as a state park and then eventually transferring the land to the city.

The island “moat” is the two-hundred-yard-wide Swinomish Channel and spectacular Deception Pass, but these are enough to give Fidalgo a clear ecological identity. There are two bridges across the channel and one across the saltwater pass.

From this good fortune came conservation. Early families donated or sold watershed lands to the city. The Kiwanis Club became involved in saving Mount Erie. Individuals donate money, and timberland owners granted easements. The result is an opportunity to sustain the original ecosystem and develop a cross-island trail network.

Now the woods are growing back toward “ancient forest” conditions, a process that can take centuries.

Forestland managers have a host of challenges. Tourists do come to enjoy the woods, and Anacortes Community Forest Lands are very much an urban forest. Dogs, horses, bikes, erosion, litter, invasive species, and grandfathered gravel mining add to regular forest issues such as wind, fire, and disease.

The island’s front porch, the strip development along Highway 20, is uglier than it has to be.

Yet most people take remarkably good care of the island’s natural heritage, and I’m lucky to have them as neighbors.

The forest is one corner of the world getting better, not worse.

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