On the Spiger tree farm, outside of Graham, Washington trees mark key milestones in their life. Shortly after Mike and Anne bought the 80-acre property, nearly 39 years ago, the entire family (with the youngest being their seven-year-old-son) planted the rows of Douglas-fir trees facing Webster Road. The marriage of their three daughters was marked by planting even more Douglas-fir. And young western hemlock and Douglas-fir growing in the canopy gaps within their older stand of trees date from the 2012 ice storm.
After all this planting, Mike ruefully admits that there isn’t much space left to plant more trees, and their efforts have created a forested setting that offers restorative “wood walks.” Yet along with the peace and joy the Spigers derive from their forest, they also recognize the tangible economic and practical uses that their trees provide.
“Forestry was my second choice of career,” Mike says, “I always loved the woods, but I never had experience with forestry. I was a military brat and moved around, but I always loved trees, even as a child.”
At the University of Washington, he pursued a degree in his first career choice—medicine—and there he met Anne who studied zoology. Following their marriage, the couple moved to Utah where Mike completed his residency at the University of Utah. Four years later, the couple returned to Washington State and purchased a house near Puyallup where Mike practiced at Madigan.
Yet their two-acre property could not accommodate the 1,000 Douglas-fir seedlings that Mike received from a patient who had learned that Mike loved trees. Just recalling the incident prompts both Mike and Anne to laugh. “I had rows and rows of these trees growing in coffee cans, not knowing what we’d do with them all,” Mike says. Moreover, these were in addition to the cuttings of evergreen shrubs also growing in coffee cans.
So what do you do when you have 1,000 seedlings? “You look for five acres someplace,” Anne says recalling their 10th wedding anniversary when they signed papers for a property that could accommodate their desire to grow trees.
The land they purchased served as both pasture and forestland. However, with decades of cattle roaming the property, the soil was heavily compacted and the trees were damaged from cattle grazing and using them as scratching posts. Mike recalls thinking, “Oh, man this is a sow’s ear. Can we make a silk purse out of it?”
An Evolving Understanding of Active Management
For a number of years, they managed the property with the dual purposes of forestry and livestock. “Our real vision of forestry really wasn’t there in the early 1980s; but we still wanted to plant trees,” Mike says. The couple says their turning point came in 1992 when they logged the trees that had been damaged by the cattle so they could plant a new and healthier stand of trees. Even the damaged trees were sold at a profit.
Joining the Washington Farm Forestry Association (WFFA) in the early 1990s formally introduced the Spigers to forest management. “At the time we were fixated on Douglas-fir only, which we soon found doesn’t work well on our property.”
“You have to cater to your property by selecting tree species that are suited to your soil and climate conditions,” Anne says. A good portion of their property has a high water table and standing water during the winter. Douglas-fir doesn’t tolerate soggy soil, while western red cedar, Oregon ash, and red alder are species better suited to wetter conditions. With this new information in hand, the Spigers selected western red cedar and Oregon ash when replanting.
In conjunction with Washington State University Extension forest stewardship classes, they developed a forest management plan. “Once we had it on paper, it helped us to think in terms of what we would be doing this year, next year and next year,” Mike says, with Anne adding that “it helped us understand the property better.” The Spigers credit WFFA’s Don Theoe as being a “great teacher and encourager. Whenever he came and visited, he stoked our fire for forest management.”
Their stewardship efforts took another turn following a meeting with Kirk Hanson, the northwest certified forestry director for the Northwest Natural Resource Group. He encouraged them to pursue restoring the bushy portion of the property through the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) which could provide grant funds for purchasing seedlings or contractor work to prepare the site for planting.
The Spigers applied for and received grant funds to cover work on 30 acres of their land; the work included moving a fence line to prevent the cows from entering the replanted area and the purchase of seedlings. “The NRCS was great to work with. They worked through it all with us and made it easy,” Mike explains. “Applying for a grant takes some time, and we already had a forest management plan, which was a requirement, but it was easy to set up.”
“The EQIP program really did keep our feet to the fire,” Anne added. “The strict project timeline with regular check-ins helped us accomplish our goals.” The EQIP grant provided funding for the reforestation of 7-8 acres of pastureland with western red cedar and Oregon ash. Over time, these plantings will provide habitat for birds and wildlife, soil health and stabilization, and a source of income from periodic timber harvest.
Appreciating the Full Value of a Tree
For some of the stands that were replanted with western red cedar and Oregon ash, the Spigers are seeing what it takes to return a forest to the landscape. While inspecting the western red cedar seedlings, Mike is excited to see ones that survived the summer drought and the elk browse. Some of the western red cedar seedlings died because of the drought and will have to be replaced with another seedling.
In the Douglas-fir stand planted in 1996, native vegetation of sword fern, native blackberry, and understory forbs have managed to break through the compacted soil and cover the ground. “After 35 years, the forest is coming back,” Mike says.
Their long-term vision is a diverse forest that provides wildlife habitat with sustainable harvesting. And most importantly, the couple appreciate all the tangible uses their trees provide. “It didn’t bother me a bit seeing the trees being cut when we did the harvest in 1992, especially when we got paid,” Mike says. Those 57 truckloads of Douglas-fir and western red cedar enabled the Spigers to pay off the farm. Western red cedar and maple from their property is found in their log cabin and mother-in-law suite they built for their grandchildren. “All the siding on our outbuildings and garage is cedar sawn from here. And our rebuilt sunroom is framed using a lot of our own lumber,” Mike says proudly.
When walking through their mature stand after a blustery December night, they come across several fallen trees, and in the case of western red cedar, tops busted off. Yet Mike and Anne take the damage in stride. “The good Lord brought the trees down for me so I didn’t have to,” he says. And rather than bemoaning its death, they recognize the value the tree will provide, whether through firewood, a habitat snag for cavity nesting birds, sold in the next thinning load, or its incorporation into a household project. And come next year, after the debris is cleared, another tree will be planted nearby.