The Big Wind: History of the WSU Forest | Part Two of Three

This is part 2 of a 3 part series on the history of the Washington State University forest and its evolution since the big windstorm of Feb. 17, 2006.

This is part 2 of a 3 part series on the history of the Washington State University forest and its evolution since the big windstorm of Feb. 17, 2006.

Within days of the storm, which downed 250 trees, local arborist Dennis Tompkins went out to the WSU Forest because he was curious to determine whether root rots were involved in the tree failures.

However, he said “I have seen several trees that fell around the area during the “north-easterners” that had no signs of root diseases. The unusual direction of the winds probably was a factor.”

He went on to say, “The significance of knowing where the root rot centers are may have an impact on decisions of which areas to develop and/or preserve. Root rot areas could be developed.

“Proposed leave areas should have root rot trees removed. Identifying such trees is difficult, but when the current cleanup is in progress, noting failures due to diseases will be helpful for future management (or clearing) the forest.”

As reported in the Courier-Herald, several weeks after the February storm, WSU hired Ken Russell, a tree pathologist from Olympia, to assess the damage to the forest and the extent of laminated root rot, a fungal disease common in Douglas firs in the region.

Combined with blow downs and the disease, more than 1,000 trees were logged. Russell and Tompkins marked about 50 more trees with signs of advanced root rot. Tompkins said the disease is common in urban forests.

“It’s a very natural condition,” Tompkins said. “A forest is always evolving. This disease has persisted for decades. It will be there forever.”

Tompkins said Douglas firs are the most susceptible, while hemlocks are less likely to contract the disease and cedars are highly resistant.

Ultimately, the Department of Planning and Community Development approved a tree removal permit allowing about 1,200 trees to be cut down by Donny Jones Logging from Graham, Wash. According to Russell, this was about 7 percent of the forest.

At the May 16 City Council workshop, Mel Taylor, executive director of real estate for WSU, informed members the forest would be closed for all future university, 4-H extension programs because of the extent of damage from the storm and disease.

It turned out that the gates of the Washington State University Demonstration Forest closed May 16 and apparently would never open again. The Demonstration Forest was closed permanently.

At another Bonney Lake City Council workshop, Taylor told stunned council members, “Because of the extent of the disease in the trees, the university will not return to the forest programmatically and we will not be replanting trees.”

Taylor informed the council, when questioned, that the land is closed to public use and technically always had been.

He said residents had used the land unofficially for many years.

I was in the council chambers that evening. There were gasps and shocked looks throughout the packed room.

After WSU announced the permanent closure of the forest in 2006, over time the buildings fell into disrepair, were vandalized and set on fire. The forest became an attractive nuisance.

Quadrant came back with a second development proposal for the Washington State University Demonstration Forest at the July 19 workshop, and their reactions ranged from mixed to mad, according to a Courier-Herald article.

Wally Costello, senior vice president of Quadrant, a property development subsidiary of the Weyerhaeuser Company, spent about an hour with a couple of display maps and handouts, explaining the plan for the nearly 150-acre forest.

The proposal presented offered to give the city “contiguous acres of land,” with a 527 home development on the remaining 100 acres of the current forest.

In a letter sent to Mayor Neil Johnson, Costello pointed out the 45-acre park is “greater in size than the combined area of the current city owned park/recreational properties.”

Costello said at the meeting the second proposal is intended to provide “something of value to the city in trees and parks.”

In the first plan, Quadrant proposed developing 30 acres of commercial land along state Route 410 East, building 470 homes on 87 acres and deeding the city 30 acres of parks spread across the property.

The commercial part of the plan was dropped, Costello said, due to problems getting the Washington  State Department of Transportation to agree to a stoplight on state Route 410 and “all the statements we received that people want to see a stand of trees coming up the hill on (SR) 410.”

Councilman Phil DeLeo reacted strongly to the increased number of homes.

“Why, when it’s a windfall for you guys,” DeLeo asked, “are you trying to put in 527 homes? Why does it have to be so many?”

Councilman Mark Hamilton agreed with DeLeo’s assessment.

“We need more homes like a hole in the head,” Hamilton said. “I’m not voting for this.”

Costello said it was important for everyone involved to understand WSU will sell the land and the proceeds will be split with Weyerhaeuser.

This development proposal did not come to fruition. But with the winds of change, council members changed in 2008.

Read the final part of this  three-part series to see what happened next.

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