In a forest, James Agee prides himself on rarely being surprised.
The University of Washington forestry professor can, within minutes, read a landscape for fire history, wind damage, soil type and age.
When Agee hiked the steeply pitched slope near the headwaters of Canyon Lake Creek, he quickly sized up the tall stands of mountain hemlock and Alaska yellow cedar as 300 to 500 years old.
Nice old-growth forest, he thought. Not an extraordinary one.
But when Agee took samples back to his office for analysis, he got a jolt.
“When I sanded them down and counted the rings, I thought, ‘Oh, my God, these are very old trees,”’ says Agee.
Many were more than 800 years old.
Only a handful of forest stands in the state are known to be older than the Canyon Lake stand, Agee says, and all of them are in national parks rather than on private land.
So the Trust for Public Land (TPL), a nonprofit conservation group, hopes to raise $3.5 million to $4 million to buy the 350-acre patch from Portland-based Crown Pacific. The trust already has an option to purchase the property.
Some University of Washington forestry experts have lobbied U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., in hopes of securing federal dollars to buy the site about five miles east of Deming.
Among the potential private patrons contacted by the trust is the state’s most visible philanthropist, software billionaire Paul Allen. Allen earlier this year set up his own forest-protection foundation, which already has donated $5 million to save old-growth forests.
Project manager Chris Rogers says TPL would resell the land to either the Forest Service or a nonprofit organization, intending that the site become a research preserve.
That the Canyon Lake trees have survived is due to the whims of both topography and the marketplace. Agee believes the forest was protected by its location on the lee of a steep hillside, and that wind pushed fires and storms right over the stand.
The rest of the watershed, which drains into the Nooksack River, was heavily logged. The Canyon Lake parcel was first owned by the Department of Natural Resources, then swapped to Bellingham-based Trillium Corp., which last year sold most of its Whatcom County holdings to Crown Pacific.
“That basin was hit pretty hard” by timber companies, said Russ Paul, timberlands manager for Crown Pacific. “This just happened to be one of the last pieces left.”
The yellow cedar fetches premium prices in Japan, where it is prized as an ornamental wood.
The Whatcom County Land Trust first eyed the old-growth stand a few years ago, when the state Department of Natural Resources was about to trade it to Trillium. In 1993, Trillium and the land trust hired Agee to survey the site.
The trees may not look much bigger or different from those in a forest 500 years younger. Yet the Canyon Lake forest is a stunning place.
On a recent drizzly day, a ghostly mist filtered through the trees, blocking out the outside world. Long beards of sea-green moss draped from many of the hemlocks. Many cedars have fallen, easily identifiable by their bright yellow wood and pungent odor.
The forest floor is crowded with smaller trees, some a little bigger than Christmas trees, yet nearly a century old. These will lie dormant until a nearby giant ancestor dies off, allowing in enough light for them to shoot up to maturity.
Agee says an intact forest of this age has great research value in addition to beauty.
Scientists can study the progression of a forest system that hasn’t been interrupted by a catastrophic event like fire or human interference, providing baseline information to compare with more typical forests. It could also contain unique stocks of lichen and moss.
“Mostly, this place is rare because it’s so old,”says Agee. “These trees might have a good 400 years more ahead of them. So why trash this place?”
“To me, this is like holding a fundraiser to save Chartres,” the 13th-century Gothic cathedral near Paris, said Rand Jack, a Nooksack River valley resident and a founder of the Whatcom County Land Trust.
“This is the ancient cathedral in our back yard.”