Isolated woodlots in Whatcom County are less noticed than our larger forests and parks. How are these lands unique and what can be done to preserve them?
Although 60% of Whatcom County is forested, the majority of forests are found in the eastern foothills and mountains at high elevations. But in the populated lowlands of the west, trees are primarily found in isolated patches. Patches in the form of woodlots or riparian strips or fencerows. And 77% of these patches are less than 20 acres.
Among the isolated patches, we’ll focus here on woodlots. Woodlots in Whatcom County have unique characteristics and they provide many ecological and cultural benefits.
What is a woodlot?
Western Michigan University nicely defines them as areas that are not landscaped and contain natural forest vegetation. Add to that a woodlot is surrounded by non-forested landscape.
In Whatcom County and statewide the surrounding landscape is most often categorized as “agriculture.” Agriculture can include pasture, tilled fields and lawns. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) cites agriculture as the habitat most often converted to when private forests are logged and not replanted. On average every year, Washington State loses 9,700 acres of small landowner forest.
Woodlots in Whatcom County are jewels on the landscape. They provide so many ecological functions. Including but not limited to:
- critical habitat for song birds and raptors— nesting, cover, foraging, and migratory stop overs;
- habitat for large and small mammals— example: fawning grounds for deer;
- landscape connectors and stepping stones;
- a place for diverse trees, shrubs, and ground cover to thrive and multiply;
- climate amelioration— woodlot vegetation cools the ground and retains moisture, and, takes up significant CO2 from the atmosphere;
- not to mention the whole ecosystem of arthropods, fungi, and soil organisms that support the food web;
- and for humans— woodlots provide esthetic pleasure, noise abatement, air cleansing, privacy, wind breaks, firewood and food.
Woodlot size matters
When it comes to habitat, bigger is usually better. Bigger woodlots can do more of the things listed above, but also can supply something called interior habitat. A forest interior has unique characteristics. Much less light and wind penetrate from the edge, so that the microclimate within is cooler and moister in the summer and warmer in the winter. This is important to organisms who have evolved to utilize more temperate conditions. Such as warbling vireos, Western screech owls, rough-skinned newts, northern flying squirrels, even elk.
Interior habitat also provides greater protection from open-habitat predator species like jays and crows and coyotes. Given an edge penetration distance of 120m, a round or squarish woodlot must be at least 4 ha (10 acres) in size in order to provide some interior habitat.
But not to worry if your woodlot is smaller, edges are good too. Especially if it is a “mature” edge. A mature edge is rounded and blends smoothly with the forest. It’s thickly vegetated with saplings, shrubs and forbs and generally pretty impenetrable.
Forest edges are highly diverse ecotones (transition zones), in terms of the plants that comprise them and the animals that are attracted to them.
Mature edges contain numerous flowering plants that provide food and cover for insects and birds and browsing mammals. In turn, raptors and other predators feed on the circus of creatures within the edge.
“Raw” edges on the other hand tend to be porous and lacking in mid and lower canopy constituents. They’re usually the result of recent forest clearing. Raw edges are associated with greater predation on songbird nests among other negative effects.
It takes a long time for an edge to mature. On my own property in Acme, a once “raw” edge has taken over 20 years for woody shrubs to grow and thicken against a riparian stand. Left to its own devices, a forest edge will eventually become forest itself.
Woodlots are under-appreciated
Is there a government program to protect or enhance woodlots in Whatcom County? An incentive program for landowners? Unfortunately not. The WA Department of Natural Resources does have wo little-known programs to assist small landowners, but only for forested parcels greater than 20 acres (Forest Riparian Enhancement Program), or that have barriers to fish passage (Family Forest Fish Passage Program). This is why an organization like Whatcom Million Trees Project (WMTP) is so important. Although its primary mission is to plant one million trees in Whatcom County, it is also dedicated to preserving existing forested habitat in all its forms.
Love your woodlot if you have one. The best management of a woodlot is no management at all.
- Allow trees to naturally regenerate and mature. Older forests have increased value to wildlife and sequester more greenhouse gases.
- Allow sub-canopy trees, shrubs, and forbs to develop.
- Leave snags in place, they provide habitat for a myriad of wildlife species.
- Let fallen trees lie. Downed woody debris is also associated with a myriad of wildlife species. Fallen logs stabilize soil and retain moisture.
- Avoid road building within the woodlot. Interior roads are associated with increased predation of songbird nests and increased nest parasitism by brown-headed cowbirds.
- And of course, resist the pressure to log all or part of the woodlot. Its value is too great to squander for short term gain.
Lastly, all woodlots of any shape or size are valuable and provide innumerable benefits to humans and the natural world. Let’s find ways to protect the many woodlots in Whatcom County!
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Virginia Naef is a contributing writer for Whatcom Million Trees Project. She has worn many hats, from construction laborer to wildlife biologist to laboratory technologist. But her greatest love is conservation biology. She has completed field studies on dam mitigation and river restoration for the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. And hatchery mitigation and fish habitat relationships in the South Fork Nooksack for the Lummi Tribe. Her Master’s Thesis through Huxley College is on the susceptibility of forest avifauna to nest predation in varying Northwestern landscapes.
Although retired, Virginia stays very busy on her 15 acre farm in Acme, as well as participating on the Boards of the Deming Friends of the Library and the Northwest All-Breed Goat Club. By helping the Whatcom Million Trees Project, she looks forward to bringing more trees to our beautiful region and to protecting the ones that are already here.