“Good morning and welcome to the Ravensdale Retreat Natural Area,” Mike Brathovde said in a cheery voice, opening a tour of the 143-acre public park with restored streams and managed trails that wind past moss-draped Douglas firs, patches of meadows and a sea of ferns.
As volunteer trail and park ambassadors since 2012, Brathovde and his wife Donna, who live on an adjacent property, serve as the eyes and ears of the park for the county. On a recent winter morning tour, they shared the history and topography of the park near Maple Valley with King County Executive Dow Constantine and his staff.
The Brathovdes’ stewardship and the county’s restoration efforts throughout the park serve as examples of what local forest management could look like for decades to come. A third of the county’s forests are in the hands of private landowners, and those partnerships are integral to the long-term health of local forests, King County’s forestry staff says.
A 30-year forest plan released Tuesday by the King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks aims to mitigate climate change, improve forest health, increase the tree canopy in unincorporated cities, improve public access to forests, enhance salmon habitat, improve water quality and supply, and support a sustainable timber industry. Along with forest landowners, the plan relies on nonprofits, and tribal, state and federal government resources.
In 2002, the Brathovdes enrolled in King County’s public benefit rating system, a program that reduces property taxes for private landowners to preserve open spaces, which the couple used to improve the land around Rock Creek.
“It’s really rushy and natural now,” Mike Brathovde said with a slight laugh that flowed into the sound of the rushing creek below. He described it as “the highest quality remaining salmon habitat in the entire lower Cedar River-Lake Washington system.”
The Brathovdes’ 45-year history in the area is so intertwined with the park that their lives and volunteer work seem indistinguishable: When the creek dries up in hot summer months, for example, the family fishes for salmon that gather in a small pool and they dump them into the creek later.
Implementation of the county’s decades–long forest plan will begin with pilot projects later this year. It will be revisited every five years to analyze progress and review goals. The current version of the plan does not include a projected price tag.
About two years ago, King County staff hosted workshops and events for small forest landowners and cities to solicit community input for the 30-year blueprint. The plan came on the heels of a 2015 strategic climate action plan. They synthesized the information into the seven goals outlined in the plan and devised strategies to meet them.
On the day of the late February tour for Constantine and his staff, Paul Fischer, a county forester, described how invasive blackberries would be removed from the land surrounding the creek to help enhance salmon habitat and improve water quality, as outlined in the 30-year goal.
“These blackberries are marching through the forest here,” Constantine said.
“Yeah, it’s pretty scary, it’s impenetrable,” Fischer said. The blackberries are known to crawl up trees and deprive them of air and sunlight.
During next year’s planting season, contractors will replant the area with native conifer trees and shrubs that can withstand the area’s wettest months. Revenue from the sale of trees harvested because of root rot will be filtered back into funding the area’s restoration.
Researchers anticipate that climate change will affect forests in a number of ways, including bigger winter floods and less snowpack. Drier and hotter summers that increase the likelihood of droughts and wildfires also are expected.
The county plans to shepherd forests that are able to adapt to and recover from the changes, by planting trees of the same species as those found in the area, and which need minimal human maintenance to thrive. In order to reach that goal, the county will rely on predictions from researchers and the results of studies to determine which trees are more climate-resilient.
Natural resource professionals in the Pacific Northwest have formed a group, the Forest Adaptation Network, which plans to document the success of seedlings grown throughout the region.
“It’s really putting the right tree in the right spot,” Fischer said. “A tree that’s happy right here right now, the conditions might change in 30 or 50 years with climate change so that it’s not going to do well.”
For instance, alder trees are short-lived and degrade within about 60 years, so the county plans to harvest the trees and use that funding to plant other trees.
“We have a short-term carbon loss, but overall we have a carbon gain,” Kathleen Farley Wolf, project manager for King County Forestry Program said. “Ultimately we’re making these forests more resilient.”
Land conservation goes beyond stopping development. Under the plan, the county plans to increase access to green spaces for historically underserved communities.
“We have some parks that are green, but they’re covered in blackberry, their trees are falling down and there’s a lot that we can be doing to bring those up to a higher quality for recreation or public use,” Fischer said.
The plan will also intertwine with preexisting initiatives such as the Land Conservation Initiative to identify areas where people don’t have safe access to green spaces, and to acquire land in the areas and bring the forests to them.