“I have to get reacquainted with the forest again,” Ruth Ferris says as she surveys the opened stand in front of her.
A few months ago, before the thinning project she conducted to help restore the health of her forest, sunlight could hardly penetrate the overstory canopy of Douglas-fir, western red cedar and big leaf maple. Now on a sunny November day, light reaches the forest floor and stimulates the growth of understory shrubs that provide valuable bird habitat. And next year, seedlings will sprout as well, creating the next generation of trees to take their place in the forest. After a moment, Ruth finds the trail her dad built years ago and continues walking the familiar path.
For nearly 80 years, this land outside of Eatonville, Washington has been a restorative home and gathering place for Ruth’s family. Now it is Ruth’s turn to manage this forest, nestled into the Mount Rainier foothills and along the Pacific migratory bird flyway. She aims to build on her father’s work through restoring forest health, creating bird habitat, and preparing for the transfer of the land to her children and grandchildren.
Building on Her Parents’ Legacy
Before Ruth, her father managed the land. Though he didn’t have formal experience in forestry, Ruth says he spent a lot time in the woods observing the trees and working the land. This translated into a light-handed approach to managing the forest by removing smaller trees for firewood and conducting some thinning to manage the risk of fires. “He just had a love of being out there and using his body to work,” she recalls.
Over the years, her dad made improvements to the property, including a manmade pond that serves as a gathering place for wildlife and the trails throughout the property. “My mom would walk the trails my dad made, and I believe that is why she survived her cancer operations in her 80s,” Ruth says.
In 1999, with her parents in declining health, Ruth assumed ownership of the property with the goal of building on her parents’ vision because “I saw the forest as our inheritance.” In the years that followed, she immersed herself in learning about forest ecology, management plans, and habitat, and applying that knowledge to achieve her goals.
Learning How to Assume Ownership Responsibilities
Ruth lives in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood that offers a distant view of the Rainier foothills and her family’s forest. On the weekends she escapes to the woods. In her role as steward, Ruth continues her work of removing invasive species, such as Himalayan and evergreen blackberry, along with Scotch broom, from the property. She also resumed her father’s goal of keeping the stand open by harvesting the smaller trees. “I realize as I age, that there’s a huge amount of me that is like him. I do a lot of work out here, but I really love it, restoring this land.”
In 2005 Ruth started taking forest management classes through the Washington State University’s extension office in Puyallup. Not only did she learn what is involved with actively managing forestland, but the classes also “got me looking at the different ecosystems on the property.” Through the classes, she heard of the Northwest Natural Resource Group, a local non-profit that helps woodland owners steward their forests, and became a member. Around this time, she heard that Audubon was advocating for thinning as a way to enhance bird habitat. Being an avid birder—she can name all the species that visit the bird feeder out her back window—Ruth welcomed this approach as a way to enhance the existing habitat. Yet the act of thinning still made her hesitant, having witnessed the aftermath of a terrible logging job that was done to help pay for her parents’ care. “I’ve seen enough bad logging, and when I purchased the property, I swore no logger is touching my forest.”
What changed Ruth’s mind was taking a class on how to oversee a logging operation, at which point she decided to oversee a thinning operation herself: marking the trees and finding a logger. As a member of NNRG, she worked with their consulting forester, Rick Helman to oversee the thinning project. What made Ruth confident in her decision to work with Helman was the comment he made after seeing her pocket the increment borer core from a trees they just cored to determine its age. “Rick said, ‘That just told me a lot about you. Some people just throw it on the ground.’ And I said ‘Oh, we love this forest, my family and I.’”
Helman selected Boehne & Son Logging, based out of Port Orchard, to perform the work. “I really liked J.D., and he liked me. And he loved to talk about what he did,” Ruth says. She remembers they did three walkthroughs before the thinning started to make sure she was comfortable with the trees coming out. They made an effort to avoid damaging the trails, and had no problem accommodating Ruth’s requirement of not beginning until the fall, after the birds had flown their nests.
Getting Reacquainted with the New Forest
The result was an open forest that now has light reaching the forest floor. The thinning focused on removing the smaller disease-infected and suppressed trees to free up space, sunlight and nutrients for the remaining trees. Now the forest is set to grow larger trees, and there is space to plant different species or allow them to naturally seed in. Because of this thinning, Ruth has the opportunity to improve the forest’s health, resilience, and growth over the long-term.
The thinning also provided access to areas of the property Ruth couldn’t visit before because it was too dense. Toward the back of the property is a stream that Ruth hadn’t seen before since the underbrush hid it from view. And even though it has been less than three months after the logging equipment ran over the soil, Ruth says new shrubs are coming up already. While she appreciated having Helman handle the logistics of the logging and acknowledges that the project beat net income expectations and was a win for wildlife and the forest aesthetics, she says his work was time-intensive and that landowners should know that a careful selective thinning operation is more expensive than a clearcut.
Ruth doesn’t regret taking a more active management approach when managing the forest, as it “is restoring what I love and my parents’ spirits are still here.” And while the thinning sets the forest on a trajectory to become healthier, more resilient, and ready for the next generation to assume ownership, much work remains. Ruth is planting Douglas-fir, western red cedar, hemlock and big leaf maple in the gaps created by the thinning, and is carefully monitoring the forest for invasive species. “The whole family is dedicated to the forest legacy. My next steps are to set up the land for their inheritance and to educate the family as to how to manage the land.”