At the south end of Whidbey Island, off a tree-lined road, Linda Kast ’75 pulls her station wagon up to a gate and jumps out. She opens her hatchback and extracts a thick folder containing maps, a history, and an inventory of her small wooded acreage.

As she leafs through it she explains that she bought this 11-acre forest nine years ago in memory of land her family used to own and regularly visit on Whidbey when she was a child growing up in Seattle.

At the time she bought the property, Kast signed up for a forest stewardship class with Washington State University. Her impetus for taking the nine-week course was to develop a tax plan for the property. But she finished knowing so much more about her trees and how to care for them, it transformed how she looked at not only her property, but the forested lands all over the island, she says. “It’s a lot of information. It’s very detailed.” She learned about the understory, the soils, the history, and the weeds. “It’s not for the faint of heart.”

Then she bought work boots and a chainsaw and started managing her forest. “Before it was just about the trees and not cutting them,” she says. “Now it’s about maintaining a healthy system.” She and workers she has hired have thinned some of the larger trees like hemlock and the dense sections of Douglas fir. And she planted more trees and native plants.

On this spring day she’s meeting with WSU Extension forester Kevin Zobrist to go over her forest management plan and seek his advice on a few things on the property.

Washington State has 21 million acres of forested land. While much of it is commercially owned, about three million acres belong to private landowners—sometimes it’s an acre of trees in a back yard, or 500 acres in the hills. Owners include individuals like Kast, as well as churches, camps, and tribes. Most of them are interested in maintaining their wooded areas for privacy, aesthetics, ecosystem health, and to provide habitat for wildlife. While some do harvest their timber for money, it isn’t usually their first priority, says Zobrist.

The biggest threat to small-forest ownership is development. Sometimes it’s just too expensive for owners to maintain their forests when they are taxed for land at its development rate. But there are alternatives. The Current Use Taxation program allows for the property to be assessed at its use for forestry. But many people don’t know about the program, or they don’t have the ability to create the forest management plans required, says Zobrist.

And management is important. Existing forests have four phases of development: Open, dense, more complex, and old growth. “It is these older stages that support the greatest wildlife,” says Zobrist. They’re diverse, robust, and resilient. But in the Northwest, because of logging and fires, we have lost the more complex forests, and are left with relatively young (100 years or less), dense, and unnaturally uniform forests. These have a higher risk for fire and disease, he says.

Kast’s woods were logged in the 1990s. What came back or was replanted included white pines, madronas, hemlock, and Douglas firs. She and Zobrist wade into the timber to inspect the site. As they step through an understory of ferns and salal, Zobrist stops to point out a red huckleberry, a good sign. Then the trees grow denser and the plants on the ground disappear. “You have lost some habitat in here because it’s so dense,” he tells her. Thinning this area will come later in her plan. Further uphill they find several acres where she has removed some trees to support a more diverse habitat and provide the big trees space to get bigger. Zobrist looks pleased. “As a forester, I come out and this just looks gorgeous,” he says.

We see a variety of plants. Zobrist stops to check a young white pine for blister rust, a disease that breaks down the bark and ultimately can kill a tree. The best way to check the disease is to remove and destroy an infected tree, he says.

We reach an area with a small wetland, and a nearby clearing. At one time, Kast thought she would create an arboretum here and introduce some new and interesting trees. But once she started, she realized it didn’t fit with what she had. “They were too foreign,” she says.

Zobrist tries to discourage the use of non-native plants. “It’s more about stewarding and helping along what would come naturally,” he says.

Kast ended up taking the WSU forest stewardship class three times. The second time her goal was to meet other landowners and foresters. “I really liked everyone who is connected with this. They’re conscientious, kind, and knowledgeable.” And the third was to freshen up her understanding of her forest and bring her stewardship plan up to date so that she can continue to qualify for both tax cuts and Forest Stewardship Council certification.

“I think owning forested land has made me a happier person,” says Kast. “I’m looking forward to sharing it with my grandchildren.”

On the web

Puget Sound Forest Stewardship Program (WSU Snohomish County Extension)