Less than 30 years ago, the drive just out of Burnett into Wilkeson was lined with second-growth trees, the canopy creating a quarter-mile tunnel into the old mining town.
Wilkeson’s quilted landscape has seen many natural and manmade changes, from volcanic eruptions millions of years ago to the late 1800s timber harvest booms of the California Gold Rush and Northern Pacific Railroad-owned coal mines.
This past summer, the Town of Wilkeson made yet another scenic change, one that has tugged at the hearts of its people: the grove of trees at the town cemetery was cut down.
Timber, as an industry, has been a traditional livelihood of the area for many generations and one can still see cut notches from springboard logging in massive stumps along Wilkeson Creek. Timber, as the exploitation of dynamic, complex ecosystems, has also been a learning experience for all of mankind.
Growing up in the desert of Southern Utah, my family would make a yearly visit to Pine Valley Mountain, where we’d sniff out the “butterscotch trees”, or Ponderosa Pines, and plunge our sagebrushed-selves deep in forest. Being in the forest is a true breath of fresh air when the hot sandstone and asphalt radiates hazy mirages seemingly from sunup to sundown. Over the last couple years, I’ve listened in amazement and internal apprehension to podcasts and TED Talks about Mother Trees and the cooperative connection forests have beneath the soil.
So, it, too, was hard for me to see those cemetery trees gone, and, like many Wilkeson residents, I needed to understand how and why the large fir grove was no more.
In order to expand my knowledge, I met with Elmer Timmons, a Carbonado lumberman who felled the large “Buckley”-carved tree outside the Log Show arena. Elmer allowed me to accompany him to a deep forest logging operation near the north fork of the Puyallup River, beneath the Puyallup Glacier, roughly 600 feet from the Mount Rainier National Park boundary.
“This is about as close as you can get WORKING to the Mountain”, Timmons, who started cutting for a St. Regis gypo in 1964, shared about the current job.
The drive up was a dusty rumble strip road, once a logging railroad grade, through salal-thicketed forest floor and native meadows, purposefully left unplanted as the property owner was in love with the elk herds.
Occasionally, Elmer would adjust the COBRA 29LTD Classic CB Radio (“Oop! Gotta turn the music on…”) to communicate with the other loggers our location, making sure we wouldn’t round a no-visibility corner and crash head-on into a truckload of logs.
“White River used to have a forestry class. They’d use a skidder, and they’d fall trees because it was an industry; a career,” Timmons spoke proudly of his occupation, loyal to lumber even after witnessing numerous (some fatal) accidents, including one that damaged his own eye.
We parked across the valley, and Elmer handed me a pair of binoculars. A simple, electronic signal whistled across the treetops as I focused in on a hillside blanketed in horizontal trees.
“Pretty soon they’ll blow three, which means go ahead on it,” Timmons explained, pointing out the high lead cable setup, where workers in hardhats choked heavy cables around a few trees to be yarded up to a landing utilizing a tall metal pole (known as a spar tree), the cable line, and a selection of heavy machinery.
We drove to the other side of the valley where, from the landing, I watched as the logs were un-bellied from the chokers and a large mechanical arm picked each one up. The machine, a Processor, ran the log back and forth through its robotic grip to measure, shave off limbs and bark, and cut the timber to an exact length all in one go.
Looking down into the canyon, Elmer showed me a smartphone app he used to measure off sections of map and translate what was to be logged. He pointed out how certain color-coded areas on the map were pockets of older growth trees being left uncut as habitat for specific animals, such as the marbled murrelet, a coastal seabird that travels inland to nest in mature forests. Other strips of timber throughout the company-owned working forest were left in a 150-foot buffer surrounding water sources for “fish shade”.
The protected watershed in the Town of Wilkeson is also a working forest, meaning that crops of timber are harvested on rotation and replanted to be harvested again. Properly maintained, the Wilkeson watershed is harvested every ten years, rotating through each of the six timber crops. Maintenance is important for the tree crop to produce the best yield. The watershed Tree Farm provides clean, healthy springs of water for the people and is a piggybank of savings for the town.
But what of the cemetery trees?
“These are lifetime decisions,” Chris Wilde, resident, addressed the council at the June 22nd Town Hall meeting, “We can’t put the trees up again; they’re gone. But we can do careful planning with what we have now.”
Bambi Thawsh, Councilmember for Cemetery and Emergency Services, who had been part of a group curated to study the cemetery over the last five years, clarified that the large fir trees on the west side had rooted and destroyed some of the old graves and headstones. Possible damage occurring to the gravesites on the east side of the cemetery was a significant factor in the logging decision.
Additionally, many of the large trees had developed a fungus rot at their core.
“Trees support each other,” Thawsh explained, “We cannot remove some without the remaining trees being vulnerable to the elements.” The thought of windfall was not that of the Town’s monetary gain, but of graves being uprooted during seasonal storms.
“We must take care of our town and do the things we do not want to do. We must protect our loved ones,” Thawsh concluded. Being five-generations in, Bambi has known the people of Wilkeson her entire life and her safety concerns applied to family and friends both above and below ground.
Janet Barclay, resident, during the same meeting, described the cemetery’s prior appearance as “bucolic”.
“It’s just been lovely,” she commiserated, “in some way, we need to capture that essence.”
Which the Town intends to do, by recycling earnings from the cemetery logging back into the property through considerate landscape choices. For instance, those attending graveside service have had to park alongside a rural road and the upcoming plans will include improved parking and seating, plus new gardens respectful of the nature of cemeteries.
I see the forest for the forest, the trees for the trees, AND the cemetery for the cemetery. Each is a separate and necessary component of life on this planet that must work together in ever-evolving understanding. I recognize how difficult of a decision it is when making the best choice for Wilkeson, a community who has deep respect for their historic roots, yet improvements must be made for future safety and greater quality of life.