‘The River’ – The Story of our Tree Farm on Pilchuck Creek

By Dave New, American (Washington) Tree Farm System, 2018 Tree Farmer of the Year

My wife Dar and I, our daughter Jennifer Parker, and her husband, Jeff Parker, are equal partners in a place we call “The River” on Pilchuck Creek in northern Snohomish County, Washington. Dar’s grandfather, Leroy Nourse, purchased this 160 acres of property in the early 1940s for family recreation.

I work for a private civil engineering firm in Bellingham, dealing primarily with land development, Dar is a retired teacher, Jenn is a licensed engineering geologist working for the DNR in Sedro-Woolley, and Jeff is a licensed geologist working for a private geohydrology firm. Jenn and Jeff have two boys, ages 4 and 6. We all live in Bellingham, 40 miles to the north.

The New family: From left, daughter, Jenn Parker, grandson Tyler, Dave New, Dar New, Jeff Parker and grandson Alex Parker, by ATF and Stewardship signs. The New family was awarded the Tree Farmer of the Year award in 2018. (Photo by Tami Perrault)
The New family: From left, daughter, Jenn Parker, grandson Tyler, Dave New, Dar New, Jeff Parker and grandson Alex Parker, by ATF and Stewardship signs. The New family was awarded the Tree Farmer of the Year award in 2018. (Photo by Tami Perrault)

Dar’s uncle, Bob Nourse, owned the property for about 50 years. He always shared it with the extended family. As Dar was growing up in Seattle, her family went nearly every weekend to The River to tend the garden and camp out on the river. She has fond memories of this big part of her childhood.

When Dar and I first met as students at Western Washington University in Bellingham in the early ’70s, her mother, Nina Hoyt, would bring her a big box of vegetables from the garden on most weekends in the summer and fall. She continued doing this after we were married.

When Uncle Bob died in 2004, he had 10 heirs to whom he left two pieces of property, a 40-acre farm and a 160-acre plot, and a grand total of about $300 cash. As it turned out, all of the heirs except Dar and Nina wanted cash and not property. We did not see how we could keep but a small portion of the property. We took the property out of the open space classification and put it up for sale.

After selling the 40-acre farm near Lake Stevens, we entered a sales contract with a reputable local developer for the 160-acre River property. He submitted an application to Snohomish County to subdivide it into about 60 single-family lots. The county accepted the application and they were proceeding towards preliminary plat approval and ultimately, development as a subdivision.

Then, in 2007 three things happened: 1) the price of gas went over $4 per gallon, 2) Boeing was poised to leave Everett, and 3) the Navy was evaluating the future of their Everett base. These things lead to a complete halt of residential property sales in northern Snohomish County. The developer was holding his own and making all of his payments to his bank, but then the recession hit and his bank began to fail. They called in all of their commercial loans, and the developer liquidated all of his assets at a time when there was no market for them. He lost everything and went out of business.

Dar and Nina then made an offer that was acceptable to the other heirs that saved The River from development. However, to be able to afford the taxes, we needed to get the property back into open space. As most of the property was forest, it made sense to put it in forested open space. Because of changes in the open space laws since the 1970s, we now needed to prepare a forest management plan. This is good public policy, and I now support it.

At the time, none of us knew anything about forestry. We hired Pete Blansett, a consulting forester with S. A. Newman out of Everett, to do this work. After walking the property, he told us that we had an over-mature stand of mostly red alder that either needed to be logged soon or it would go to waste, making reforestation much more difficult.

Over my career in land development, I have seen land owners get into trouble when they tried to do things where they did not have expertise. I was not going to attempt to manage the logging myself. We hired Pete to obtain the forest practices permit, write a timber sale prospectus, put the sale out for bid, and manage the timber harvest and subsequent replanting for us. We harvested 62 acres in late summer of 2013. The site was prepared for planting in September 2014 and replanted in early 2015.

In the meantime, we have continued the 60-year tradition of planting a garden at The River and spending most weekends there. We have added a small orchard with apples, peaches, pears, plums, cherries, figs, raspberries and blueberries. We spend a great deal of time there tending the dahlias, weeding the vegetables, throwing sticks and balls for the dogs, or walking down to the river with our two grandsons to soak our feet in the water. We press apple cider two or three times in the late summer and early fall with a group of friends. We walk down to the river to watch the salmon return in the fall. Every year, we plant a large pumpkin patch, and late every October we host a pumpkin party where the grand kids, about 80 others of all ages come enjoy The River, have a treasure hunt and carve pumpkins to take back to the city.

In years gone by, the Conservation District assisted farmers in moving streams out of their fields. This place was no exception. Grandpa Nourse ditched a tributary stream to Pilchuck Creek, moving it to the edge of two fields to create about 15 acres of pasture. He and Uncle Bob used the fields to run cattle and grow hay. However, the lower section of this diked stream silted in over time, causing the stream to spill over the dike and splay out in the lower field. The stream lost all definition in reed canary grass.

One weekend in December 2012 after a big rainstorm, we walked down to the lower field to discover that a run of coho salmon had stranded themselves in the field, having been unable to find a channel. The fish were easy pickings for the eagles and ravens waiting in the trees.

In April 2013, as a part of the forest practices permit process, Pete Blansett and I met Wayne Watne of the Washington Dept of Fish & Wildlife on site for the hydraulic project approval that was a necessary part of the state Department of Natural Resources’ forest practices application.

We needed to build a bridge across the stream to access the timber sale site. Wayne pointed out some young Coho near the bridge site. I mentioned to him stranding we had observed the previous year, and expressed a desire to fix the stream. He suggested contacting the Snohomish County Conservation District (SCCD). I did, and since then we have been working with Christen Marshall, Ryan Williams and Carson Moscoso of the SCCD staff to perfect a conservation reserve enhancement program easement.

Using my civil engineering background, field survey information provided by the District, stream flow tools available online from the United States Geological Survey, and WDFW stream channel guidelines, I designed a channel through the field. This new channel was permitted and constructed by the SCCD.

Subsequently, we planted about 30 acres of stream buffer with Washington Conservation Corps crews, volunteers and school groups. We constructed the channel in 2016, and began stream buffer planting the following winter. Maintenance and replanting has been ongoing since then. SCCD awarded us a Conservation Leadership Award in the fall of 2016 for this effort.

Dar and I joined the Washington Farm Forestry Association so that we could better know about forestry and how to deal with our property. Because we live in Bellingham, our most active affiliation has been with the Whatcom County chapter. I have attended almost every evening and weekend forest visits sites sponsored by the Whatcom Chapter. Tom Westergreen is has been the facilitator on these visits.  I have learned a lot from him and from his coaching of the owners on these site visits.

Through WFFA, I learned about WSU Extension Forestry, and the many courses they offer.  I took the WSU Forestry Extension coached planning class and was able to rewrite our forest management plan with the assistance of Kevin Zobrist, Lauren Grand of WSU Extension, and Boyd Norton of DNR. Boyd was the inspector who ultimately certified our tree farm.

When I was writing the management plan, the conservation reserve program easement was still in the planning stages. Part of our new forest management plan included planting of areas along Pilchuck Creek and the adjacent floodplain. The August 2015 windstorm hit us hard, knocking over a number of large trees. The thought of cleaning up after the downed wood (mostly cottonwood) and replanting a large area was very daunting. We ultimately included these areas in the CRP easement, and the SCCD crews planted red cedars and hemlocks in the understory along the streams. We are truly grateful to have acquired the continuing assistance of the SCCD in this non-commercial part of our property.

I also took the WSU Extension “Ties to the Land” class, where I learned about succession planning. This led to us creating a limited liability company through which we now share the ownership and will pass it on to our grandkids. It gives us peace of mind to know that they will not have go through what we did when Uncle Bob died.

We have hosted WSU Extension events, including one on forest practice and hydraulics permitting, and one on noxious weed control. (How else could you get people to pay money to come and remove weeds from your property!?)

One Christmas, Dar gave me a wildlife camera. We now have three we regularly place on various parts of our property just to see what or who comes by. The “Desperately Seeking Goldilocks” picture of three bears is one of the best shot to have come from this.

Tom Westergreen and Boyd Norton both asked if we have had any damage from the bears. I can’t say that we have. Our bears don’t seem to have learned that behavior. Our biggest problem is with deer browsing and rubbing their antlers on the young trees.

Three bears go through Dave New's Snohomish County property. He calls the photo "Desperately Seeking Goldilocks."
Three bears go through Dave New’s Snohomish County property, as captured on a trail camera. He calls the photo “Desperately Seeking Goldilocks.” (Photo by Dave New)

When we received the 2018 Washington State Tree Farmer of the Year Award this past May, I recognized by name all of the people and entities mentioned above. If the contribution of even one of them had been missing, we would not have received the award.

It was in honor of their assistance that I held an open house on July 21 to showcase not just a tree farm and its benefits the environment and society, but also the types of assistance that are available to private forest landowners. To their credit, the WFFA Whatcom Chapter, Upper Puget Sound Chapter and state organization; Washington Tree Farm Program; WSU Forestry Extension; Snohomish County Conservation District; Washington Association of Conservation Districts Plant Materials Center; and DNR Small Forest Landowners Office all jumped in to help. We had great publicity, material assistance, and representatives to share what each organization does. There was a good turnout, and visitors were genuinely interested and asked good questions.

One of my favorite Yogi Berra saying is, “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Ten years ago, I knew nothing about forestry or forest management. Whenever I have been given an opportunity to learn more, or to get help to better manage our property, I have taken it.

I do not consider myself a forestry expert by any means, but I have at least learned to ask the right questions of people who are in the know.

It is our goal to keep and pass The River on to future generations so that this one small stretch of woods and stream can be managed in an environmentally friendly way into the future, and to provide the family with a modest amount of income at various times along the way.

Dave New (right), son-in-law Jeff, and grandsons Alex and Tyler. Photo taken in 2016 as annual event photo taken by the planted Douglas-fir. (Photo by the New family)
Dave New (right), son-in-law Jeff, and grandsons Alex and Tyler. Photo taken in 2016 as annual event photo taken by the planted Douglas-fir. (Photo by the New family)