Timber and Trails Merge in Reiter Foothills State Forest

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A rock crawler tests out a Reiter Foothills Forest boulder. Photo by Scott Davidson, 4×4 volunteer.

The rock hopper is perched on top of a giant bolder as though posed for a glossy magazine ad. It’s just part of the backdrop in Reiter Foothills State Forest, a landscape managed by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources as working trust lands.

Harvesting timber to provide funding for public services is a core function of the Department. It generates about $200 million a year through sustainable timber harvest projects to provide public funding for schools, libraries, public safety and other services that rural and urban residents rely on.

These trust lands are managed by the agency with two other primary objectives in mind too, to protect the environment and provide places for people to enjoy the outdoors through a wide variety of recreation options. In fact, DNR’s followers span a wider variety of recreation interests than any other state land management agency – from hang gliding to sea kayaking.

When the Reiter Foothills Recreation Plan was created back in 2010, stakeholders were well aware that timber harvests were a part of the equation. Yet, when trees within the part of the Boulder Unit had gown to a size sufficient to provide good local lumber, DNR staffer John Moon knew the agency’s harvest objectives would have to take into consideration the land’s special recreation value. You see, this section of the forest included the Reiter Foothills 4×4 trails – a recreation site of great significance to many people.

There are very few places where residents who enjoy 4x4ing, or “rock crawling” are still allowed to go – the nearest legal alternative is Walker Valley, another DNR site 75 miles away. That’s likely because without careful planning, this activity can cause erosion and environmental degradation. Private property owners are often unwilling to take on such responsibility. In fact, DNR enacted a massive ORV shutdown here back in 2006 for just such reasons.

Since then, however, the agency has worked with user groups to rebuild 4×4 roads (“trails” are a better and more common description) intentionally located where their activities won’t interfere with sensitive areas. Volunteers have used large equipment to painstakingly place boulder upon boulder to create a continuous series of drops and obstacles – almost mimicking a raucous dry creek bed. Today, 6.8 miles of carefully designed 4×4 trails have reopened to the public – and they get used a lot.

As the timber sale approached, Moon worked with Reiter Foothills Recreation Manager Ben Hale to reach out to users to understand how the agency could meet its goals, while protecting recreation interests and the investments. Foresters like Moon must meet agency needs, including volume, revenue, habitat conservation plan and Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) requirements, but they’re also empowered to design their harvests in ways that meet landscape objectives or community preferences. Hence the aptly named “Pathfinder Timber Sale.”

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DNR Forester John Moon with one of the trees that DNR identified as one to exclude from the Pathfinder Timber Sale for its importance to the local 4×4 community.

For the Pathfinder Timber Sale Moon first altered the edge of the sale boundary to boarder the edge of the trails. This reduced the need to repeatedly cross the trail, which helped to minimize damage. He also stipulated that the harvest would only occur within a single winter season, when use is lighter. In addition, harvest activities would shut down each weekend to still provide access to the public on Saturdays and Sundays when the site is traditionally most popular. Then, he visited the site with 4×4 enthusiasts to identify which specific trees adjacent to the trails were important to their enjoyment.

It turns out that keeping trees tight to the road creates a more challenging experience. Removing a tree may make the trail too easy and less fun. Other trees are important for their ability to winch off of – either to create that just-so photo op, to get out of trouble, or to help a buddy out of a jam. With the help of the 4×4 community, Moon was able to clearly mark which trees should be left in place.

The area does look different since the harvest finished last spring. Clusters of big trees still stand tall – about ten of them per acre. (An acre is a bit smaller than a football field.) Those islands of more mature trees provide diverse habitat. They’re often clustered around special “habitat trees”, such as snags, especially large trees, or structurally unique trees which we work to protect as a part of any harvest on state trust lands.

The harvested open areas, which span the majority of the harvest site, creates ground-level vegetation preferred by a wide variety of insects, birds, small mammals and amphibians. The birds and animals that visitors may spot will shift as the ecosystem evolves and the foot-tall replanted trees grow – generally at a rate of about one foot per year.

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Berms in the Pathfinder Timber Sale help to keep riders on track while providing habitat for forest critters.

The 4×4 community recommended that the slash that’s normally generated by a harvest be left at the site to create natural “berms”. The branch-based berms may be a bit unsightly (the agency often removes them in areas where lots of people would have to see them), but they serve to contain members of the 4×4 community that might be otherwise tempted to stray off-trail. Those slash piles can also provide habitat for salamanders, frogs, snakes, lizards, chipmunks, squires, mice and other small critters.

The recreation community gets something in return from these timber harvest too. Timber production pays to maintain the roads, which would otherwise represent a significant cost. Volunteer trail builders use these roads to bring in equipment and supplies. Visitors use them to get to their favorite trailheads. The harvest management fee that DNR uses to replant these areas also provides wildfire protection and law enforcement services for the forest.

While 4×4 rock crawling may not be everyone’s activity of choice, (about half of the Reiter Foothills working forestland has been set aside for hikers, horseback riders and mountain bikers who generally prefer space removed from motorized recreation) foresters can work to engage the public in similar ways for areas with other forms of recreation.

Reiter Foothills Forest is an example of how the Department of Natural Resources has been able to steward public lands for 4×4 recreation in ways that both protect the environment and meet the agency’s fiduciary responsibilities. The Pathfinder Timber Sale ultimately generated $1.6 million for public services, 70 percent of which was shared in May with the final 30 percent arriving this month.

Recreation improvements in the area will continue over the next few years. A large, permanent trailhead just off Reiter Road will allow parking for 100 ORV and visitor vehicles, and an additional 3.3 miles of 4×4 trail are slated to be built by volunteers, with agency collaboration, once state Recreation and Conservation Office grant funds become available.