Managing a Centuries-Old Forest

For more than 100 years, the stands of old growth forest and miles of salmon-spawning streams within the 466-acre Rhododendron Preserve have been carefully protected, but largely with a hands-off approach. That strategy is changing, however, as the Preserve continues to grow and change in the face of climate change and regional development.

The Preserve, which is located within the Suquamish Tribe’s usual and accustomed fishing and hunting areas, is managed by the Keta Legacy Foundation, also known as Mountaineers Foundation. Amy Lawrence is a board member for the Foundation and an Olympic College professor. Together with other board members, she has led a three-year effort to develop a forest management plan and modern digital mapping and visualization tools that will help the Foundation make decisions about things like if and where to thin the forest or plant trees, monitor streams and riparian habitat, or control invasive species.

“The interconnectedness of our natural systems is indisputable. The Kitsap area continues to grow and develop, putting additional strain on our streams and buffer areas at the same time climate change is coming to bear,” Amy said. “We have an obligation to make sure the forests, meadows and streams in the Preserve are healthy and can support the biodiversity of the Salish Sea region. As we’ve acquired new land, we’ve needed to modernize how we monitor and respond to the changing maturity, health and biodiversity throughout the Preserve.”

We have an obligation to make sure the forests, meadows and streams in the Preserve are healthy and can support the biodiversity of the Salish Sea region. As we’ve acquired new land, we’ve needed to modernize how we monitor and respond to the changing maturity, health and biodiversity throughout the Preserve.

Amy Lawrence

Amy saw this as a perfect internship opportunity for some of the students that she’d been working with. In 2019, Holly Walter, an intern from Western Washington University (WWU), helped with the initial compilation of data about the Preserve and started building the base layers for a new geographic information system (GIS) tool.

In the summer of 2020, two new interns – Bree Grim from Evergreen State College and Casey Blankenship from WWU – took on the next phases of work. Bree and Casey completed an in-depth review of the recommended management strategies from earlier studies and management planning efforts to start developing a new conservation-based master management plan. The new plan would link management efforts to specific conservation goals and threats and look beyond the boundaries of the Preserve to include the greater Chico Creek watershed.

Bree and Casey also started refining the map Holly had built by heading into the Preserve to “ground truth” each section. This involved hiking into each of the Preserve’s 32 stands to confirm or update information about how easy the stand is to access, the forest stand characteristics such as average tree diameter and height, the presence or degree of invasive species, and more.

In addition, Bree and Casey developed state-of-the-art Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) images and data to map the ground and canopy of the Preserve. They compiled historical timber plot data from former plantation sites originally owned by Ueland Tree Farm. The data and images make it easier to determine the density, age and competition levels for those sites. They were also able to use drone imagery to create 2D and 3D image files that make it possible to gather information about the hardest-to-reach parts of the Preserve. All the forest survey work is supported by use of an app that allows interns, students, board members, and others to easily collect and upload forest data into the GIS database using standardized protocols.

During the summer 2021 intern season, Casey continued working on the project with Megan Burch, also from WWU. This month they completed a detailed ArcGIS forest stand access map and submitted an updated management plan for review by the Foundation’s board – which happens to now include former intern Bree.

This forest stand in the southern part of the Preserve was once previously disturbed, but is now approaching maturity, with well-spaced trees and diverse understory.
This stand is typical of some of the Preserve’s newly-acquired parcels. Trees are dropping their lower branches as they use their energy to grow taller to avoid being shaded out. This results in very little vegetation on the ground and poor tree health because of the extreme shading and overcrowding.

Amy says that the board plans to hire two new interns this coming summer to complete more survey work that will complete baseline data needs for all forest stands and collect more information for the GIS database. She and her students are also using some of the new monitoring protocols at nearby, recently-thinned forests in the same watershed. The Foundation will be able to examine trends from that data as they consider management strategies in the Preserve. They also plan to consult with the Natural Resource Conservation Service to help oversee restorative thinning of the Preserve’s more recently-acquired parcels.

“This work has helped us see our forests through a different perspective. It’s not just the height and diameter of the trees,” Amy said. “In the short term, these new tools will help us prioritize our restoration work. Over the long term, it helps us think about things like where we might acquire more land for improved buffers. As we add other elements such as salmon and water quality, we’ll have an even deeper understanding of how well this ecosystem is working.”

Key findings and recommendations in new management plan

The resulting 2020-2023 management plan will identify the major threats and proposed management measures for several wildlife species, trees, habitats and plants. Logging or timber harvesting, invasive species, and regional development are among the top threats cited in the plan. Proposed management measures could include managing invasive species, thinning certain stands, and more regular monitoring.

It will note which wildlife species are vulnerable or imperiled including chum, coho and sockeye salmon. While Lost Creek and Wildcat Creek are in excellent health, the draft plan notes that invasive species, as well as logging and development outside of the Preserve, pose ongoing threats to riparian areas. Future property acquisitions might include properties or conservation easements along Wildcat Lake or its tributaries, and the plan will recommend additional buffers in riparian zones where thinning occurs.
The plan will also detail four ecozones in the Preserve with specific conservation goals for each type of ecozone. The draft plan notes that the general health of the Preserve’s mature forest stands is excellent, with little management needed beyond monitoring for invasive species and added attention to Big Tree, creek valleys and hazard trees.

The draft plan notes that the unique attributes and significance of the Hidden Valley homestead site. The grassy meadow area supports a rich variety of wildlife, which could be impacted by planting trees. The Foundation has considered restoring the site to create a more favorable habitat for salmon, and the plan recommends additional study to understand the impact of any active restoration work and determine the site’s highest ecological use. The Foundation is currently in the process of removing derelict buildings from the site and building a new educational pavilion for visitors.