From their property east of Coeur d’Alene, Steve and Janet Funk see trees in nearly all directions. Timbered ridges stretch to the horizon, appearing to roll on into infinity. The immensity of the landscape never fails to move the couple.
”It makes life’s problems seem pretty small,” Steve Funk said.
For nearly 40 years, the Funks have managed part of that landscape, using their 374 acres of private timberland at Wolf Lodge Bay to teach others about the importance of holistic forest management.
Their work received national recognition this week, when the Funks received the 2011 Tree Farmer of the Year Award from the American Tree Farm System, which represents 96,000 family forestland owners across the United States. The award was presented Thursday at a conference in Albuquerque, N.M.
“They stand out as having a real honesty and depth in their feeling toward the land,” said Steven Bloedel, a consulting forester from North Idaho who nominated the Funks for the award. “They offer their property up to anyone who wants to come out and learn about sustainable forestry.”
The Funks, both 68, have a deeply held philosophy about their responsibility to the land.
“There’s more to trees than dollars-and-cents values,” Janet said in an interview last week. “Part of it is what you feel in the woods. There’s a spirit in the woods.”
“The trees, the brush, the wildlife – they’re all living creatures,” Steve interjected.
“We can either diminish them through poor management,” Janet said, “or we can manage them to the best they can be – and we become the best we can be.“
Over the years, the couple have lost track of the number of tours they’ve hosted. They’ve created an outdoor learning laboratory, where school kids design timber sales and learn about forest pests, diseases and tree types. Teachers also come for lessons, and so do state legislators and community groups. The Funks want their visitors all to leave with an understanding of the role forests play in providing clean air, water and wildlife habitat, as well as timber and recreation.
“We’re not crazy environmentalists,” Steve said. “Environmentalists, yes. Crazy environmentalists, no.”
The Funks didn’t set out to be forestland owners. In the early 1970s, Steve accepted a job as an anesthetist at a Silver Valley hospital. With the mines booming, housing was scarce. The couple ended up renting a run-down property 40 miles away that came with 80 acres. A few years later, they bought the property.
“We fell in love with the place and realized how much work it needed,” Janet said.
In the early years, “it was survival,” she said. The demands of raising four young children and Steve’s long commute trumped other concerns. Later, the couple had time to consider what the land needed. “We noticed that we had a lot of dead trees on the property,” Steve said.
They hired their neighbor, a logger, to clear out the dead wood. It was the beginning of their education in forest management.
The densely packed stands of trees on their property looked beautiful, but they weren’t healthy, Janet said. Through judicious logging and thinning, they increased the stands’ vigor and growth rates. They also signed up for forestry classes at the University of Idaho Extension education programs, where they learned about tree diseases, forest pests and writing forest management plans.
Hungry for information, they also consulted with other agencies over the years, including the Idaho Department of Lands. Steve helped design the master forest steward program now offered through UI Extension.
When industrial timberland adjoining their property came up for sale, the Funks bought that, too. The land had been heavily logged. “It was like a war zone up here,” Steve said.
The Funks replanted the acreage with a mix of tree species, which are now 20-year-old groves of pines, fir and larch. The land provides habitat for deer, elk, moose, cougar and coyotes.
Wolf Lodge Creek, which runs through their property, is also a point of pride. When they moved in, the banks were bare of vegetation and heavily eroded. Now, the banks are lush with willows and alders that shade the stream, providing habitat for west slope cutthroat trout.
Forty-four percent of North Idaho’s forests are in the hands of family forestland owners like the Funks in Kootenai, Benewah, Bonner and Boundary counties. (Shoshone County is the exception – it’s mostly federal land.)
“On a per-acre basis, a lot of these family forests are managed more intensively than larger forest tracts,” said Chris Schnepf, University of Idaho’s extension educator in forestry. “Family forest owners don’t hesitate to put the sweat equity into making improvements on a tree-by-tree and acre-by-acre basis.”
For the Funks, the sweat equity includes operation of a small sawmill, which Steve runs. Turning logs into lumber helps pay for the Funks’ small logging projects, which are needed to keep their trees from growing too thick. Steve also does custom milling for other landowners.
“There’s something to having a man with unlimited energy, enthusiasm and humor,” Janet said. “He’ll sit down for lunch and by the time he’s finished eating, he’ll have sketched out a plan for a new idea on a napkin.”
Steve plans to retire from his job as an anesthetist later this year, giving the couple more time to concentrate on forestry.
“I never get tired of coming up here,” Steve said last week, as he hiked on his property. “But I seldom come up without bringing a pruning saw.”