What is a tree farm?

Soon after moving to the Northwest from a very different landscape, I encountered the term “tree farm” and wondered what it meant. Since then, I’ve learned that one thing a tree farm is not: a wasteland of clear-cuts.

But, let’s focus first on Earth’s richest forests; they’re actually found here in the Pacific Northwest. However, only 10 percent of these thrive today where they’re fully protected (think Olympic National Park, plus a few other old-growth enclaves.)

Eons ago, humans learned that wood was a useful commodity; there was profit in cutting down trees. Locally, Douglas firs won the popularity contest. In places, they’re still planted densely, then logged all at once. The land is quickly replanted with the same species. However, a refreshing new concept has taken root that’s replacing traditional logging, such as unpopular clear-cutting.

Now, back to tree farms. On first hearing that term, I pictured acres of young mono-species trees in perfect rows, “elbow to elbow,” like soldiers at attention. But that vision was blown away during my recent visit to Ueland in Central Kitsap. Ueland is a working tree farm managed by strict guidelines. Family-owned, this 2,500-acre property invites members of the public to hike, bike, run or even mountain bike or horseback ride among tall trees, streams, ponds and wetlands; dogs on leash are welcome, too. (This is not how I’d pictured a logging operation!)

On a sunny day last August, 20 of us trudged up a gravel trail flanked by a towering forest, led by staff from the Great Peninsula Conservancy. En route, our GPC guide explained that the surrounding trees, bearing no detectable evidence of logging, are actually selectively harvested on occasion. This practice has ecological benefits. If tall trees crowd together too closely, they keep sunlight from reaching the forest floor — periodic thinning allows an understory to develop.

Low branches of standing trees are usually removed and compacted into the ground, where they decompose and enrich the soil. The resulting greenery is a home for wildlife. Even old stumps become much-needed havens for birds and other animals.

Our hiking group reached the turn-off to popular Dickerson Creek Falls, where the wide stream, seasonally quite heavy, descends 80 vertical feet over a cliff into a rocky gorge. It’s a picture-postcard setting perhaps unique in our county. A narrow zigzag trail clings to the canyon wall, providing a viewpoint below the falls where the water continues its twisted way to Chico Creek.

Years ago, Ueland was certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, which sets out the parameters for an environmentally friendly tree farm where “forests are sustainably managed to provide healthy ecosystems, recreational opportunities and a return on investment.”

Today, Ueland’s acres are an important part of the Chico Creek watershed, being cared for to maintain forest diversity.

If you’ve hiked in a Kitsap heritage park, take note that it was probably a retired tree farm donated to the county (sometimes, bit by bit). With total protection, it’s slowly developing into a diverse forest featuring well-kept trails and attendant wildlife. Most importantly, these trees now have a chance to reach their “old growth” stage of 300 years and more.

Logging will be with us as long as there’s a use for wood products. Done the right way, the industry can also offer outdoor recreation, maintain natural habitats for wildlife and keep natural water systems healthy.