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Tulalip Tribes use precision methods to rejuvenate local forests

TULALIP — The trees are so thick that deep shadows encompass almost everything even in the middle of the afternoon on a warm, sunny day.

And therein is at least part of the problem, according to Jason Gobin, forestry manager for the Tulalip Tribes, as well as his predecessor, Terry Grinaker, who just retired after 28 years with what is now Gobin’s department.

There are some 9,000 acres of forest on the Tulalip Reservation. Currently, the Tribes are in the midst of thinning out 132 acres of forest just a few miles north of the Tribal Center on Totem Beach Road. Still, the targeted area is so remote that bumpy, dirt paths are the only access and, except for the presence of two huge logging machines, civilization would seem a long way away.

In this spot, the goal is to reduce the number of trees from approximately 400 per acre to 160 per acre. Gobin said thinning out older, non-native or overly plentiful trees helps the health of the forest in any number of ways.

For one thing, reducing the tree canopy allows more sunlight to reach the forest floor, encouraging the growth of native plants. In turn, those plants end up serving as food and shelter for local wildlife ranging from deer to grouse.

According to information provided by the Tribes, the current thinning operation will remove some 4,600 tons of mostly aging Douglas Firs. According to the Tribes, if the wood were cut into two-by-fours and placed end to end, the planks would stretch 124 miles. Nevertheless, the thinning operation is largely a two-man effort.

Contracted out to Timber Tec Inc., of Bellingham, tree removal is completed by a largely computerized piece of heavy machinery called a processor. Grinaker talked about the processor removing the trees with “surgical precision.”

Sporting a boom arm resembling a bent-over crane with a large claw on the end, the processor and its operator picks out the trees to cut based largely on size. In a matter of seconds, the processor slices down a tree to a precise height, than strips off the leaves and what was the canopy.

The logs are removed by a second piece of heavy equipment known as a forwarder, also boasting a large boom arm but a more simplified claw. The forwarder picks up the cut logs, placing them in a cage on the back of the truck.

Grinaker said use of the forwarder means cut trees are not simply dragged out of the forest as would be the case in most logging operations. According to Grinaker, dragging can harm remaining trees as well as damage the forest floor.

Further, the Tribes deliberately leave behind leaves, smaller branches and so on, as these naturally deteriorate, providing nutrients for trees and other plant life. Some of the debris coats the paths used by the heavy machinery, helping limit compression of the forest floor.

Eventually, one goal of the ongoing thinning is to create cedar forests the logging of which could potentially generate up to $3 million a year within about 25 years, Gobin said. For now, despite the removal of a large number of trees, the thinning operations are not moneymakers. In this case, selling the downed trees for planks or pulp will only net about $70,000.

A member of the Tulalip Tribes Board of Directors, Glen Gobin said tribal officials made the decision a number of years ago to keep the forested areas in a natural state, resisting development projects and even road construction affecting the forests. The obvious idea is, he said, to preserve locations for hunting and similar traditional activities.

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