Have you ever wondered how the Land Trust manages and stewards the properties that it owns? About 850 acres of conserved land are currently under the ownership of North Olympic Land Trust (this is different from the many conservation easements held by the Land Trust on land owned by others). Some of these properties, such as the conservation areas at the Lyre, Pysht River, Elk Creek, and Siebert Creek, are open for public access and recreation, while others are protected due to sensitive habitat, access restrictions, and other considerations. In either case, the Land Trust is committed to managing and stewarding these critical areas in perpetuity – an important and significant responsibility that staff and volunteers take very seriously. In this article, Land Manager Courtney Bornsworth highlights the important functions of the detailed management plans that she creates and implements for each property.
Every property that is owned and managed by the North Olympic Land Trust has a property management plan associated with it. This plan is written by the Land Manager (that’s me!), ideally prior to the Land Trust taking ownership. In some cases this is not possible, and the plan is written as soon as possible once the property is in our hands. These plans are property-specific and contain information on the current state of the land, including things like vegetation, hydrology, soils, and fish and wildlife use of the property. The plans then go on to address the conservation values that are typically the driving force behind why the property was protected in the first place, and what management techniques we plan to employ to ensure those values are maintained and enhanced over time.
Some examples of activities that are included in property management plans include noxious weed control, native plant restoration and enhancement, forest management, trail building and outdoor recreation, and opportunities for education and outreach where feasible. These plans are then reviewed and updated as management goals shift, or a significant change occurs on the property such as a natural disturbance or a planned restoration effort takes place. It is extremely important to document these changes so that future Land Managers will have as much detail as possible on what went on across the properties over the years. After all, we are protecting these properties forever!
Properties that are managed by the Land Trust are visited frequently throughout the year. Those properties with a heavy recreation component, such as the Lyre, Siebert Creek, and Elk Creek Conservation Areas are visited more frequently to monitor for any potential trailhead and trail issues. They are also frequented more often to hold work parties with volunteers who want to contribute to the land management activities that need to occur to meet our management goals. Oftentimes, these work parties are held to work on new trails or maintain existing ones, remove noxious weeds, install native vegetation, and perform various forest enhancement techniques, such as thinning of overstocked, regenerating stands of trees. These are all great opportunities for volunteers to become engaged, in a healthy, safe environment.
The Land Trust also owns and manages several properties that do not have established trails or provide access to the public. These properties are typically in more sensitive areas, such as wetlands, and providing access to the public is not feasible or would diminish the conservation values of the property, rather than enhance them. The properties that we do allow public access on provide safe, sustainable trails for passive recreation without negatively impacting the conservation values of the property. Providing access to open green spaces within our communities is so important to the wellbeing of our community members and visitors alike. Spending time outdoors has been linked to reducing stress and anxiety, and has also been proven to reduce recovery times from illness and surgery. Not everyone has the opportunity or desire to visit Olympic National Park, so making these properties easily accessible and free to the public provides opportunities for people from all walks of life to get outside and see a little of what the Peninsula has to offer.
Opening land up to the public also comes with some challenges. Vandalism, garbage dumping, and occasional theft are things that all have occurred in the past, and will likely continue into the future. For the most part, visitors are excellent at following leave no trace principles, but every once in a while you find a bag of dog poo left on the side of the trail, or an abandoned water bottle or piece of trash. Having a strong stewardship presence to pick up any rubbish or garbage found on the property tends to result in less litter being left behind in the future.
There is also the ongoing maintenance of trails at properties with established public access. Trails see a lot of traffic, and need constant upkeep to make sure they remain in good working condition. Luckily there are lots of amazing folks out there who LOVE to help put in new trails and maintain the existing ones. Monitoring trees adjacent to the trails and parking areas for risk is another ongoing task that requires frequent attention and adequate knowledge and training in tree risk assessments. My training and professional work as a Certified Arborist and Qualified Tree Risk Assessor makes this something I do on a regular basis, and keeps my experience in that field sharp. With all things considered, I would say the benefits of opening land to the public outweigh the challenges, so long as the conservation values of the property are upheld.
Since I joined the Land Trust in the spring of 2019, we have acquired the Clallam River Conservation Area; the first property that I was responsible for from the get-go. I began drafting the property management plan prior to closing, and had the plan approved by our conservation committee just before taking ownership. The plan goes into detail on the existing conditions of the property, the importance of protecting the fish and wildlife habitat found on the property, and our plans for improving the habitat over the coming years. The property was mostly clear-cut over several years prior to the Land Trust’s ownership, and a lot of work is going to be needed to restore those areas that were degraded during the process. This restoration is going to take time, and will involve a lot of noxious weed control, replanting areas that are void of vegetation with a mix of native tree and shrub species, and thinning dense patches of salmonberry and alder to reduce competition for light, water and nutrients. Restoration will be ongoing and is intended to accelerate ecosystem recovery of the degraded landscape until the land returns to its historical trajectory, rather than its historic condition. Once the initial vegetation work takes place, the plan is for the property to include a small trail allowing passive recreation onto the property, and providing access to the Clallam River; the gem of the property. Folks can anticipate having some sort of access onto the property sometime in 2022. I personally am so excited to watch this property evolve, and for our community to experience the changes that are going to take place across the landscape over the years to come.