Capitol Forest Didn’t Always Look So Green

The occasional dead tree stands alone, the snag casting sparse shadows against an otherwise-denuded landscape. Vast stretches of former forest sit so devoid of trees that they can no longer reseed themselves. Fallen timber and debris choke off stream drainages as the Black Hills stand left behind after being logged and abandoned.

Freshly digitized aerial photos show those conditions across Capitol State Forest southwest of Olympia when the Washington State Department of Natural Resources became an agency in 1957.

Modern-day aerial photos show a completely different Capitol Forest.


Where once a barren patch encompassed Capitol Peak and much of its surrounding areas, now the entire landscape is a healthy, productive working forest. The 110,000-acre forest is now managed to provide sustainable revenue to support schools, state universities, and local services throughout Thurston and Grays Harbor counties.

Capitol Forest provides so much more than revenue, too – wildlife habitat, carbon storage, and cleaner air, for starters, not to mention the seemingly infinite amount of recreation opportunities. From hiking and mountain biking to riding horses or motorcycles, or even just setting up camp for the night, there are many different ways to explore and enjoy being in the forest.

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capitol-closeup-2-gifStarting in the 1930s, the state came to manage the lands that comprise Capitol Forest after a pair of logging companies – Mud Bay Logging Co. on one side and Mason County Logging Co. on the other – clear-cut the timber and met in the middle before selling the land off for practically nothing or dodging property taxes and letting them enter foreclosure. The area was essentially void of trees, and was so fire-prone that the “Black Hills” moniker stuck because of its oft-charred landscape.

The Washington Division of Forestry, one of the predecessor agencies to DNR, began work at the Capitol Forest Nursery in 1934, growing seedlings with which workers could regenerate the forest from the ground up. By the 1970s, at least 11.1 million seedlings were replanted in the area, turning about 10,000 acres of land back into forest. A further 13,000 acres of the forest naturally reseeded itself.

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Nursery operations moved out of the Capitol Forest to the Webster Forest Nursery south of Tumwater in 1957. Since then, the Webster Nursery has grown nearly 900 million seedlings to be planted around the state, the majority of which have been used to replant state forests across Washington after timber harvests. The 14 different species of trees grown at the nursery are sold based on which zone the seeds were collected to make sure the seedlings are best equipped to thrive in the area in which they are planted.

In 1975, DNR chronicled the recovery work to that point in a 75-page book titled “Capitol Forest … the Forest that Came Back” – even then, there were still more than 6,000 acres of the then-70,000-acre forest that still needed to be replanted.

Today, Capitol Forest has grown to 110,000 acres, providing more than 150 miles of recreation trails while also providing $15 million or more each year in timber revenue to sustainably support schools and county services.