By Kai Hoffman-Krull, San Juan Islands Conservation District
Ryan Morris has a long history of foraging and walking in San Juan County forests, but discovered a new and meaningful engagement with forest stewardship through the San Juan Islands Conservation District (SJICD) forestry cost-share program.
SJICD received over $100,000 in the 2021-22 fiscal year from the Washington Department of Natural Resources to fund a spectrum of shovel-ready forestry activities throughout the Washington archipelago. As a part of this funding, seven landowners throughout the islands received cost-share and technical assistance to conduct thinning projects in overstocked forests and process the biomass using such techniques as wildlife habitat piles, constructed nurse logs, snag creation, and lop-and-scatter.
“As a plant person I knew most of the tree and understory species in our forests, but it was through speaking with staff at SJICD that I learned more of the systemic issues facing these forests today,” Ryan said.
Some of the issues Ryan learned about were that the Washington Department of Natural Resources identified the San Juan Islands as a Forest Stewardship Priority Landscape for Washington State and a top 10 priority of concern area for Western Washington in the 2020 Washington Forest Action Plan.
The plan found that the San Juan Islands will experience the highest increase in drought conditions of any populated area in Western Washington from 2020 through 2040, particularly during extended dry periods in the summer months. These increasing drought conditions will increase the risk of fire for the 84,716 acres already identified to be at moderate to severe fire risk due to overstocked stands according to the San Juan County Community Wildfire Protection Plan.
Ryan moved to Orcas Island in 2013, where he purchased an excavator and ran a small business digging ponds, conducting site prep for future homes, and trenching lines for utilities. In 2021 Ryan purchased a 30-acre parcel on Waldron Island, a non-ferry served island of 4.5 square miles at the northwest corner of the Washington archipelago. For a community of 150 people, economic opportunities can be limited and the cost-share program provided an opportunity to convert his background with the excavator into another field: restoration forestry. “It has been a pleasure to integrate a skill I know well with a skillset I’m learning,” Ryan said.
Ryan spoke about how his background in manual labor helped him quickly integrate many of the concepts for restoration forestry. While he had an existing background in tree felling, Ryan utilized several meetings with the SJICD Forest Health Manager to standardize his chainsaw technique and incorporate further safety guidelines. After only a few training sessions and opportunities to practice thinning in his own woods, Ryan became comfortable doing restoration work for others.
“People came and saw my work, and they could see the forest felt better. These congested, overstocked forests, they feel dark and unnatural. Sometimes it just takes people feeling the difference to understand why restoration is needed.”
One year later, Ryan has now conducted forest health treatments on four other properties on Waldron. His forestry work has ranged from creating fuel breaks along roads to thinning sickly and suppressed trees in the acreage around homes to increase home hardening to fire risk.
“Before I hardly thought about wildfire, but this program helped me understand that these are fire adapted ecosystems and that fires do not stop at property boundary lines. We are all shareholders in one-another’s safety, and it’s been helpful to learn information that I can share with others,” he said.
Ryan has now made restoration forestry a cornerstone for his financial stability. At the end of the SJICD cost-share program he applied for further funding from the Natural Resources Conservation Service through the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). Ryan received a 20-acre contract to thin more acreage, as well as process many of the fine fuels he generated last year with biochar production.
“I had no idea I could make almost $5,000 per acre producing biochar on my own land. It is a lot of work, but it’s also helping me pay off my mortgage.”
Waldron has six other landowners that received CSP contracts for practice 384 Biochar Production, so Ryan has a group of peers to learn from as he begins to implement the practice. The group has collectively accessed used propane tanks that can no longer be used for gas storage and converted them into flame cap kilns that can easily roll throughout the forest. Steve Bensel, one of the landowners who is now in his forth year of the CSP Biochar practice, says that these upcycled kilns have worked not only to help him reduce fine fuels in his forests but also improve the soil of his small farm, Nootka Rose Farm.
“The stuff just works. You pull up plant roots and they are all entangled around small pieces of charcoal. It’s helped improve some of the worst soil on our farm, and made our best soils even better,” he said.
Local research conducted in the San Juan Islands by the University of Washington supports Steve’s claim. The study, conducted in 2016, found that biochar additions of 20 tons per hectare increased total soil carbon by 32-33%, as well as increasing nitrate, ammonium, and phosphorus levels in the rooting zone by 33%, 53%, and 39% respectively. In addition, the study found that the dry beans grown with biochar recorded higher levels of potassium, iron, magnesium, and zinc when compared to dry beans grown in the control.
Being a lifetime gardener, Ryan is looking forward to using the biochar in his new garden. “I have pretty sandy soil, so holding onto nutrients is key for my garden’s success,” he said.
Ryan is an example of how a small project can create a new career trajectory that carries on long after the funding is complete. He has developed a quality portfolio of restoration forestry jobs and is now a restoration entrepreneur. Ryan is also helping increase the pace and scale of restoration efforts on a small island that lacks significant resources for addressing a catastrophic wildfire. He sees this work as changing his career and his relationship to his home.
“It has influenced the way I perceive the health of my most intimate environment. It’s meaningful to have physical work that is helping make my home and community a better place.”
This project has been funded wholly or in part by the United States Environmental Protection Agency under assistance agreement PC-01J22301 through the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The contents of this document do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Environmental Protection Agency or the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, nor does mention of trade names or commercial products constitute endorsement or recommendation for use.