Message from Tami Miketa, Manager of the Small Forest Landowner Office

Tami Miketa
Tami Miketa, manager, Small Forest Landowner Office

In this message, I am stepping away from my traditional forestry-related topics to speak about the critical issue we are all facing at this difficult time.

We are in the midst of some very uncertain and unprecedented times, and our level of anxiety is extremely high. The outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) may be stressful for people. Fear and anxiety about a disease can be overwhelming and can cause strong emotions in adults and children. Coping with stress will make you, the people you care about, and your community stronger. Below are some tips and thoughts I have come across that have inspired me and I want to share with you.

First of all, we all need to focus on the good you’re doing for others. Always remember, by staying at home, you are doing your part in protecting the vulnerable people in your neighborhood and community who are at risk for the severe form of COVID-19. Indeed, knowing others will benefit from your decisions and health authorities are genuinely grateful for your efforts can make stressful situations easier to bear.

Don’t get stressed about being stressed. The more you resist stress, the worse it gets. Instead, interpret the extra adrenaline as having a high energy level or an energy burst. Perhaps you can use the energy and take a run, take a walk through your woods, or just feel it flow through your veins.

Keep things in perspective. Sure, there are big things going on now. However, our brains can make relatively small things look really big, too. Remember that your financial portfolio is not your life portfolio. Your ability to think, talk, walk, see, hear, and love are way more important than the current value of a financial investment. Our brains are unable to process many things at one time, so our full attention becomes focused on one problem. Gratitude is not a corny practice; it is bringing ourselves back to reality when we’ve lost perspective. Multiple times a day, list your blessings ― shelter, food, health (focusing on what is working, not just what isn’t working) and, most of all, the people in your life.

Reconnect with family and friends. In these times of social distancing, use and appreciate the time to read, write, get home tasks done, watch movies, play board games with the family, and connect. Remember the people far away who could use some interaction. FaceTime your family, call your aunt, or Skype your old college buddy. Make sure they are doing well, and if they’re not, lend an ear and your warmth.

Take care of yourself. Eat nutritiously, with plenty of veggies and some fruit, and get enough sleep. If you have trouble sleeping, don’t try too hard. Obsessing about how vital it is to get to sleep won’t get you back to sleep. Think of it as a perfect time to meditate. Going over thoughts again and again? Try writing them down.

Practice good mental health. It is important during any stressful event to check in with yourself and your own mental health. You cannot help take care of others until you have taken care of yourself.

Remember that the situation is evolving. Some decisions are easy: If you’re sick, stay away from others. If you have plans that are two months from now, and there’s no penalty for postponing a decision, remember that the right answer may become very clear by that time, so why stress now? On the other hand, if you’re responsible for organizing an event, canceling sooner rather than later will let others make better plans. Overall, remember that the importance of our community’s well-being should be more important than saving a few dollars.

Know how to deal with emotions and when to ask for help. Accept your emotions for now. Otherwise, you’ll get sad about being sad or anxious about being anxious. You don’t need to justify your emotions. Simplify them and let go of the metaphors you hear in songs and movies. Know it will pass. If it’s prolonged, please ask for help. Talk to a counselor and/or your primary care provider. Getting help when needed is a sign of maturity and wisdom. Don’t wait until you’re at wit’s end – get help early and often.

Include helping others as part of your COVID-19 game plan. As I mentioned earlier, it’s normal to think of protecting yourself and your family first. However, if things get difficult in your community, I encourage you to keep an eye out for how you can help others. Reflect on how you might contribute to the strength and well-being of others beyond your immediate family, particularly if things get worse. Of course, this would not mean ignoring guidelines around public safety, or foolishly exposing yourself. But do think of how you might help others.

Roll with the punches. Because the COVID-19 pandemic is rapidly evolving, every day brings something entirely new and unexpected. These disruptions to our cherished routines can be another big source of anxiety. Try to create new routines and new structure, and find new positivity to create comfort in the home. Sometimes, there are projects that we always wanted to do but never had the chance because we’ve been too distracted or busy. It might be the perfect opportunity to finally check boxes on that to-do list that we’ve been putting off.

Most of all, be kind and compassionate. We’ve evolved to take joy in helping others, connecting with others, and working in teams. The happiest people are not the richest ones but the ones who have learned to be compassionate. Think of the people closest to you and how you want them to be happy and healthy, and then bring those same thoughts and feelings to others. Be generous with your kind words and your kind deeds. We all will benefit, and so will you. COVID-19 is a wake-up call, and our salvation is in our compassion.

Asking someone if they are OK, leaving a note at the neighbors to see if they need something while you run to the store, sharing a supportive smile as you pass strangers on the street, these are all ways folks across America are showering acts of kindness on each other during these unprecedented times.

Here are some other ideas to help others:

  • Message and/or call to check in on friends and family. This is especially important for our senior and immunosuppressed communities. Remind them that they are not alone.
  • If you know of someone who needs resources (food, goods) but is unable to leave their home, you can send them a virtual gift card or order necessary items to be delivered directly to them (via online stores, grocery delivery, etc.).
  • Show gratitude for first responders, folks in medical fields, and those organizing food banks. You can do this by message, phone call, e-card, or the like.
  • Donate online to local non-profit organizations that are helping people through the crisis (food banks, shelters).
  • Writing gratitude letters is a great way to spread some kindness. Order postage online, and send a note to someone who could use a smile.
  • Do you miss connecting with people? Try coordinating virtual meet-ups and activities to give people some structure and fun. Virtual book clubs or game night, live-tweet movie/show watching, or any other activity that can be shared via social media and/or streaming.
  • Small businesses are taking a hit from lack of customers. To help with this, purchase gift cards that you can use at a later time, or gift to family or friends. The extra funds will help them keep their operations open. Check to see if they have opened an online shop with delivery.
  • Spend some time with your pet or walking neighborhood dogs. Maybe foster a pet if you would like some animal companionship.

Remember, self-isolation measures are temporary. Like all other disease outbreaks, COVID-19 will pass, and life will return to normal. Because we don’t know when that day will come, we just have to wait it out. By following the guidelines issued by public health and practicing good hygiene and social distancing, we can help ensure the health care system doesn’t get overwhelmed all at once. The best way to manage anxiety is by focusing on the positive that we have around us right now.

I would love to hear some of the things that you’re doing to help yourself, your family, and your community. If you would like to share, please send me an email at tami.miketa@dnr.wa.gov and I will post them on our website at dnr.wa.gov/sflo.

There’s light at the end of the tunnel, and remember, we can do this!

Mysterious! Antediluvian! Otherworldly! Salamanders!

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Former DNR staffer Noelle Nordstrom holds a Northwestern salamander she found with biologist Ken Bevis (not the salamander pictured) during a field assignment near Elma. (Photo by Ken Bevis, clearly not the salamander, DNR)

By Ken Bevis, Stewardship Wildlife Biologist, Washington State Department of Natural Resources, ken.bevis@dnr.wa.gov, with Noelle Nordstrom, Coordinator, Streamkeepers of Clallam County

“Wow! I saw a salamander walking across the top of the leaf litter in my forest! What are they doing cruising about like that?”

Thank you, observant small forest landowner, for that question, and allow me to say a few things about this element of our native biodiversity.

Mysterious!

Antediluvian!

Otherworldly!

Salamanders!

They are an elusive, yet magical presence in our woodlands. Their bulging eyes, dinosaur-like snouts (in miniature), stubby little legs, long tails, and slow-motion lifestyles are fascinating. Their habitats are hidden and always moist; under logs, deep in the soil and duff, in moss-covered rocky talus, and in forest waters. These ancient creatures are descendants of some of the earliest vertebrate species, and we are fortunate to have many in Washington.

The Pacific Northwest is a hot spot for salamanders. Their Goldilocks habitat needs are particularly well-met in Western Washington, where it is never too hot, too cold or too dry. Forests of our state with abundant down wood, deep duff, and water sources scattered about in the forest can contain an abundance of salamander species.

Washington has 14 species of native salamanders (University of Washington, Burke Museum), with a particularly high diversity on the Olympic peninsula and in the southwestern portion of the state.

Our salamanders come in three basic forms:

  1. Small wiggly skinny ones 3-6” long, mostly dark with varying marks on their back. Often found under something (old boards, rocks, logs, in sumps). These include the long-toed, ensatina, and Western red-backed salamanders; the Dunn’s, VanDyke’s and Larch Mountain salamanders who love moist and rocky areas; and also the torrent salamanders, which depend on headwater streams and seeps.
  2. Big, dark, mottled, dinosaur-looking ones that are 6-12” long, sometimes seen cruising over leaf litter, under logs, or living in a stream. These are the Cope’s and Coastal Giants (Dicamptodon spp), and the Northwestern (Ambystoma spp) giant salamanders. These especially occur in the Olympics and southwest Washington.
  3. Rough of skin with a spectacular orange belly, about 6” long – Our one-of-a-kind rough-skinned newt. These critters breed en masse in some ponds and then disperse across the uplands for surprisingly long distances.
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The Western red-backed salamander is common throughout much of Western Washington. (Photo by Ken Bevis, DNR)

Several of the most common salamanders in the small wiggly category are mostly or completely terrestrial, living their entire lives in moist rotting wood, talus, and underground passages made by small mammals such as moles.

Wide-spread species are the Western red-backed and the ensatina. They have similar life histories, with eggs laid in tiny chambers in rotting wood where the females will guard the eggs from predators. (Imagine the underground drama of a marauding shrew attempting to eat the closely guarded eggs of an enraged mama ensatina!)

Small forest landowners commonly encounter these species, often when moving wood or old lumber. Note the markings (or lack of) on the backs when you find one.

The Cope’s and coastal giants live in association with live streams, mostly. In fact, these salamanders usually live full time resting at the bottom of deep pools in coastal and lowland streams in far Western Washington. They eat aquatic insects and small fish, yes, including baby salmon. (No, we don’t need to control them!) They can be up to 12” long and are an amazing and monstrous presence to behold.

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Northwestern salamander, one of Washington’s largest. Big, huh? (Photo by Ken Bevis, DNR)

The Northwestern salamander is one of the giants but is in a different family (Ambystoma) and has a more terrestrial set of habits. It is mostly nocturnal and often goes out cruising in the forest, like this one we encountered near Chehalis. It prefers still waters, like ponds and ephemeral puddles.

And then there are the rough-skinned newts. These charismatic little orange and brown gems will travel a surprisingly long way to standing water for breeding before returning to their subterranean upland haunts.

They have a remarkable set of mating behaviors. Breeding balls are formed, which can have dozens of adults clinging onto each other in a frenzy of sexual activity. Wow! The eggs are laid in the pond, one at a time and attached to vegetation. After a period of development, the juveniles make their way overland to find somewhere to live, usually under something rotten.

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The rough-skinned newt, ready for his close-up — as long as you don’t get too close to this poisonous little guy. (Photo by Ken Bevis, DNR)

They have a bright orange belly that says, “Watch OUT!” Their skin carries a neurotoxin that will make some predators sick (or kill them!), including humans. They can be safely touched or held, but be sure to wash your hands after handling, and don’t lick (or eat) the newts!

There is a silent salamander “arms race” going on between rough-skinned newts and garter snakes. The garter snakes are the newts’ only real predator, and the snakes are immune to the toxin. The newts keep evolving to have stronger toxins, and the snakes then respond with stronger immunity to it. Different local populations of these two species will vary in their toxicity/immunity relationship from place to place. (Thanks for that cool tidbit, Noelle!)

What can the small forest landowner do to help our salamanders?

The bright orange belly of the rough-skinned newt is one of nature’s ways of saying “Do not touch!” (Photo by Ken Bevis, DNR)

Retain rotten wood wherever you can, especially the really rotten stuff. Keep those small ponds and wetlands intact and protected. Avoid grazing right into ponds and puddles. Don’t introduce fish where they already don’t occur. Fish are predators of amphibians, especially larvae. Kill bullfrogs. Keep deciduous plants that shade the water – deciduous is better, as it allows the water to heat up a bit before the leaves come out, when the salamanders need some warming!

Sometimes there are places in our forests where water collects in closed puddles or pools. We call these features vernal ponds, where the water goes away in the dry parts of the year but stays long enough to provide significant environmental and habitat functions early in the season.

Many amphibians will use these features for breeding, especially if they last long enough for egg-laying and larvae development. These are great places to find egg masses from the Northwestern giant salamander! Look for a grapefruit-sized egg mass, often surrounding a stick or grass stem. A symbiotic algae often grows within the egg masses.

These vernal ponds provide a place for substantial microbial life, algae and diatoms, providing for small insects that can feed the amphibians in their reproductive mode. Sometimes these wet spots seem inconvenient but are particularly valuable as they allow water to slowly recede into the soil and subterranean recesses as groundwater.

Salamanders: Understated. Elegant. Cool. Amazing creatures deserving our help.

Intrigued? Good. Here are some links to websites with more salamander information: Burke Museum at the University of Washington; Stewardship Adventures; Woodland Fish and Wildlife.

Send your best wildlife photos and stories from the field to ken.bevis@dnr.wa.gov and you could be famous for a few moments in this publication!

And thank you for providing habitat.