South of Mount St. Helens, a landscape logged for decades will become a great Northwest forest of the future.
Even with two maps, a four-wheel-drive truck and Google Maps loaded on an iPad, locating an entrance to Columbia Land Trust’s recently purchased property is a challenge. A network of dirt roads winds through this area south of Mount St. Helens, and Columbia Land Trust Forestry Initiative Manager Cherie Kearney is steering us onto what looks like yet another nondescript forest road. This one, however, ends at the single-armed gate that marks the property’s northern edge.
Columbia Land Trust purchased this 2,330-acre parcel from Pope Resources in June. Dubbed Pine Creek East, it’s the single-largest purchase we’ve ever made for land that will remain in our care. To say the work ahead is daunting is something of an understatement. For decades, this land has been logged. We roll past stumps, slash and knee-high Douglas-firs that were planted post-harvest.
But, as Kearney points out, the past use doesn’t diminish Pine Creek East’s importance or its potential. “You have to look beyond the surface,” she says. “You have to envision a future of big old trees and cold rushing water that will be home to generations of wildlife.” What makes the land especially important is that it contains several miles of Pine Creek and a major tributary. Both provide some of the last remaining habitat for federally threatened bull trout in the Columbia River watershed. Pine Creek is one of the few Lewis River tributaries that supports significant populations of bull trout.
That’s one of the main reasons this land was a priority for the Mount St. Helens Forest Conservation Project, a multi-phase effort that aims to keep development from marring more than 20,000 forested acres south of Mount St. Helens and around Swift Reservoir. Led by Kearney, the project’s goal is to purchase development rights on nearly 18,000 acres, while allowing for continued timber production on those lands. (So far, nearly 7,000 acres have been protected from development.) Pine Creek East, which contains the most sensitive habitat in the project, has a different future. Over time, Columbia Land Trust will grow the kind of deep, complex forest that once was found here, a great Northwest forest of Douglas-fir and spruce, pine and alder, with an understory of native plants and shrubs.
There’s also this: Few places that we’ve conserved compare to Pine Creek East for visual drama. Mount St. Helens is so close to Pine Creek that its presence overpowers the sky. Snow still fleeces its slopes in mid-July, and that snowmelt feeds Pine Creek. Mount St. Helens helps create the kind of cold, clear-water stream habitat that federally endangered bull trout need to survive.
But this landscape isn’t only about bull trout. “This land links important corridors for animals like wolverines and elk that need space,” Kearney says.
When the logging road Kearney is driving on becomes impassable, she cuts the engine and we head on foot toward the sound of water. We find Pine Creek and its rushing whitewater, which is ice-cold to the touch. We then follow a tributary through a glade of alder with wrist-sized trunks. They are delicate, geometric. Improving the forest here will directly improve the Pine Creek watershed, Kearney notes. Healthy forests provide stable stream channels, clean spawning and rearing gravel, and shade and cover for fish. That may not guarantee the bull trout will flourish. What is certain is that Columbia Land Trust is doing its part. —Jill Davis