The Forest Next Door

Our neighbors, Mike and Donna Brathovde

Mike and Donna Brathovde are uniquely situated to experience King County Parks’ forest stewardship activities. Since 1976, they’ve lived next to what is now known as Ravensdale Retreat Natural Area, a 145-acre forested park near Maple Valley and Black Diamond in south King County. But we’ll get to Mike and Donna in a moment.

Ravensdale Retreat’s multi-use trails crisscross a dense forest of skinny Douglas-fir with their stunted limbs wearing shaggy green sleeves of moss. While it looks wild and unruly, a closer look reveals an unexpected uniformity and a hint at the forest’s past.

It’s our only park with charming hand-painted trail signs in curlicue script — courtesy of a local Girl Scout troop. Occasionally a flicker of movement low on the trail or just off to the side will give away the hiding spot of a wee forest frog. This forest is also visited by elk and deer, with occasional sightings of bear, cougar, and bobcat.

Ravensdale Retreat Natural Area is currently closed to public until mid-September while we do a forest health project. Admittedly, this project looks dramatic in the act and aftermath. Still, thinning crowded trees opens holes in dense tree canopy, lets the sun shine upon the floor, and makes room for the remaining trees to grow larger. This adds complexity to the forest ecosystem, and ultimately, nudges these former commercial timberlands to function more naturally.

We contracted with Paul Fischer of Resilient Forestry and Donny Anderson of Anderson Logging to do the work, which is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council® (License No. C008225). And when their work is done, our talented Backcountry Trails Crew will make sure to repair the trails, and we’ll re-open the park.

We met with Mike, Donna and Paul on a sunny Wednesday afternoon for a stroll in the woods and to get their thoughts on our forest stewardship.

But first, some background: the Brathovdes, who purchased their property in 1976, said the area was first clear cut in late 1890s or very early 1900s. Fast forward about 80 years, when Plum Creek Timber Company clear cut the area over several years and then later planted a Douglas-fir plantation, with idea they’d come back in 10 or so years and do a pre-commercial thinning to favor the better trees. Before Plum Creek could thin their plantation, we acquired the property, at the urging of the Friends of Rock Creek Valley, to protect the land for its ecological value and for recreation.

Donna said being a neighbor to publicly-owned land means the land around their home will always remain undeveloped, a possibility they never anticipated when they purchased their property in 1976. “We fell into this fortunate setting and didn’t foresee being 100 percent surrounded by protected public lands, with county land on one side and everything behind us held in conservation easement by Forterra. This will always be protected forestland.”

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The forest continues to grow

Mike listed the benefits of forested land: “Timber, recreation, wildlife, wildlife habitat, water protection, carbon sequestration, and oxygen production.” Donna added, “Aesthetics, having natural looking areas that aren’t developed, to be able to get out and it’s quiet.” Mike finished the list: “It renews your soul.”

Paul Fischer started his career in forestry as a student at the University of Washington, where he was one of the contributors to our Black Diamond Area Forest Stewardship Plan, which outlines recommended forest management practices based on data collection and analysis for Ravensdale Retreat and several other of our parks in the area. In his current capacity, he is responsible for marking the boundaries of the project area, inspecting the work, and writing progress reports.

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Paul and Mike talking shop

When asked why he choose this line of work, Paul said, “I really like the patient nature of it. High quality green space in developing areas is increasingly rare and increasingly valuable to hang onto. We have to make sure it is functioning the best we can have it function, especially with Rock Creek being one of the highest quality salmon streams in the lower watershed. We are being good stewards of water quality and fish habitat. I feel like we are doing a tremendous benefit.”

While Mike and Donna currently volunteer with King County Parks, Forterra, and in the Maple Valley community, Mike’s 34-year career was as a forester at Weyerhaeuser. Like Paul, Mike takes the long view: “I fully anticipate it’ll look pretty ugly for a few years. I’ve told all the neighbors it’s not going to look good for a while. But it’s for the long-term benefit of the forest and in 5-10 years it’ll look better and a lot healthier.”

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Standing in an area scuffed up by forestry equipment, sunlight making its way through

“This all started out as a commercial plantation,” he reminded us. “One hundred percent Douglas-fir all uniformly planted, 435 trees per acre. With this variable thinning, it’ll look more like a natural stand and less like a plantation.”

Paul acknowledged the pain people feel with respect to cutting trees. He said, foresters such as himself, are “working with impacted ecosystems. I don’t want to say damaged but they really are not healthy and they definitely don’t resemble forest regeneration following a natural disturbance like wind or fire. So, the work we do is cutting trees and that’s pretty traumatizing for some people. And there are some short-term impacts that are pretty substantial, and they look bad for the first couple of years, but the forest that results is getting back on a trajectory toward functioning forest.”

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Walking through a clearing at Ravesdale Retreat Natural Area

He added, “I would say that generating wood products is a good benefit of these kinds of stewardship projects, especially in the case such as this when it’s not the primary objective by any means, but still to recognize it’s a renewable resource that is providing a raw material. With sustainable and responsible management like what we do, we can be proud of the wood products that come out of these projects.” Plus, the revenue that King County Parks receives from the sale of the removed trees goes back to fund forest stewardship projects in the future.

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Douglas-fir logs harvested using sustainable practices certified by the Forest Stewardship Council®

Mike chimed in, “It’s refreshing to see that after my whole career growing commercial trees, with a focus on Douglas-fir and growing the straightest and least deformed trees, whereas now, here you’re striving more for variety – so you’re allowed to leave the alders, and cottonwoods, and the maples, and the forked trees, or the sinuous trees. When you’re managing commercial forestry, you’re getting rid of all those.”

Then Donna laughed as she admitted, “It’s been great working with Paul, who has been so responsive to us and any issues we’ve raised, including protecting a particularly large and beautiful Flowering Red Currant” she wanted to preserve.

So, selective thinning can be that selective if need be.

Five individuals walking toward the camera in a forest clearing with forest equipment - a feller-buncher - in the background.
Walking past a resting feller buncher at Ravensdale Retreat Natural Area

We appreciate Mike, Donna and Paul for sharing their time and thoughts with us. Thanks!

Take for comparison Dockton Forest, once locally known as The Black Forest: our recent outing showed naturally-occurring Madrona seedlings and wild raspberry vines loving the sunlight, a result of a 2015 forest health thinning project. In time, Ravensdale Retreat Natural Area will be in similar shape. And as an added bonus, we’re planning to plant some 2,000 trees there this November, getting King County ever closer to the goal of planting 1 million trees before the end of 2020.

Dockton Forest with sunlight reaching strong green ferns in the understory.
Sunlight reaching sword ferns in Dockton Forest, August 2019

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