Land Restoration in Action

Here at EEC Forest Stewardship we spend a lot of time and energy restoring the landscape. This action takes many forms, but the most recognizable and immediate solution is replanting. In our forest, there are a lot of neglected edges, which have been the focus of restoration projects. Our stream buffer along Weiss Creek is one example (pictured above), replanted with native varieties in 2020. In a temperate rain forest environment, covering soil surface with layers of vegetation is imperative to prevent topsoil erosion and landscape degradation through nutrient loss. Often people thing putting a lawn down is enough, but in a place with heavy rains and sloping hills, grass doesn’t cut it. “Lawnscape” also invites invasives like blackberry to come in, which is actually another way nature is trying to heal the soil surface, but blackberry makes it harder for other over-story species to take root.

Blackberry grows into head height surface cover, protecting the soil and preventing erosion. Old cane dies back each year, providing a great soil amendment to enrich the topsoil with carbon through the organic breakdown of plant material. When I cut back blackberry, I find a dark fluffy debris pile under the plant- ideal for planting into with native growth- provided I keep the blackberry at bay until the new trees and shrubs establish. Once the canopy returns, blackberry retreats due to the lack of sunlight. Many of the pasture spaces at EEC were overridden by bramble when we arrived, and we used goats for several years to cull back the canes. Now that the blackberry is manageable, we’re planting the landscape quickly, encouraging that new over-story to take shape.

Some of our plantings still live along side blackberry, but eventually, the trees will overtake the forest floor and provide a new habitat of more stable vegetation, also inviting diversity in new species to regenerate the land. Our introduction of Garry Oak (pictured above) will provide drought tolerance to the forest, something to start planning for as the climate shifts. While our water dependent hemlocks continue to die back as summers get hotter, the oaks will thrive in the more extreme temperatures, and provide acorns for wildlife and people. We’ve also mixed in big leaf maple and hazel to provide great leaf mulch to amend the oak’s tannin, and a better diversity of deciduous trees for the forest. Eventually, evergreens will be planted in, after the other established native growth overshadows the sun loving oaks.

This succession planning allows us to evolve our restoration methods with the regenerating forest on a more natural timeline. EEC Forest is currently farming focused, with a need for pastures, fruit and nut trees, and sunny places for people to enjoy. In another 60 years, the older trees will tower over this modest acreage, blocking out the light that many of these cultivar species rely on to survive. By then, there will be enough fertility on the ground to provide good foundation for more evergreen plantings, which will be introduced after the oaks and maples get in a good run. However, if climate continued to fluctuate, the evergreens may struggle to remain drought resistant and die off like the hemlocks. Then we’ll be very glad we implemented a wave of oak and other nut trees which can handle the dryer conditions.

Our back 40 already had a small grove of hybridized chestnut varieties established and thriving. They are pictured above, with our other major fertility contributor to the land- sheep. Because of all the topsoil erosion which followed two major logging operations over the past 100 years, the current soil cannot provide enough stability, or fertility to a developing evergreen forest. Teenage Douglas Fir trees take up HUGE amounts of nutrients from the soil. In it’s current state, our land could not support the trees through this development into old growth forest. To speed up the restoration of soil fertility, we’ve implemented animal systems to mimic the original elk and deer populations which would have been contributing manure and under-story vegetation management. Here’s the scoop on sheep poop.

The nut trees are an in between species, a luxury food for our farming production, and great deciduous trees, which will put a lot of great leafy debris into the soil with the sheep poop to offer complete nutrients into the growth cycle for future biomass. To be clear, all these systems are based on a well managed holistic plan that involves moving the animals around in concentrated grazing cycles in line with pasture recovery and improvement. The sheep are not allowed to graze as they please all across the land. They are stationed in moving pastures for short periods of time so that the landscape can rest and regenerate before another round of grazing comes through.

Our other major player in regeneration through animal systems is the birds. Chickens and sheep go hand in hand. Sheep graze the grass and poop nutrition across the landscape. Chickens follow behind gleaning pest insects out of the manure and also put down more fertility with their own fecal contribution. There is also a collection of poop out of the coop, which is folded into gardens and into reforestation planting to give trees and shrubs a concentrated boost in fertility from the moment the roots take hold. Our hens cannot get to the back field, but the sheep are not in the back field for extended periods of time, allowing longer recovery and proper manure breakdown before more grazing commences. If you don’t rest your fields between grazing, your land will not have a chance to recover this is why so many fields end up destroyed by overgrazing. A detailed calendar for grazing in western Washington can be found here.

If we had to remove all our animals tomorrow, the recovery of the land would continue, though at a slower rate. What you choose to plant on the land will have a lasting effect on restoration and recovery in your bio-region. If we simply put in nothing but evergreen trees at EEC, the lack of diversity would cause stagnation in forest growth. By layering the plantings with under-story, as well as over-story vegetation, we are regenerating the intact nature of our temperate rain-forest by providing all the species specific contributions in complex ecosystems. But if you are not wanting to return your landscape to a climaxed old growth forest, there are still ways to enhance and regenerate the land, especially along your edges.

At EEC Forest Stewardship, there are some areas of our landscape which will continue to provide open space for an orchard and gardening, near the living space, where people spend most of their time. Along the edges of these areas, blackberry pushes to take advantage of open sun spots, and rather than fighting the bramble in an endless battle, we decided to put up a wall. We started with a physical boundary built from pallets, which also keeps out the deer who want to eat our crops. We then established a hedgerow of native species. After five years of slow going, we are finally seeing the results of our hedge beginning to take shape. In the winter of 2021, we will lay this hedge over for the first time, constructing a living wall which will continue to thicken and diversify along our edges. Edge space is a transition zone, usually teaming with more life and diversity of vegetation because of its in between state.

This edge on our eastern property boundary, gets great morning and early afternoon sun, plunging into shade by late afternoon, thus staying cooler during the hot summer, and allowing more sensitive plants like ferns to have a chance at reestablishing. We’ve put a mix of under-story plants like elderberry and day lily along with trees like river birch and red alder in- though these trees will be pleachered to discourage vertical growth. If the trees grow up, they block out the sun for many of the edge species, which utilize both sun and shade to thrive. Maintaining this balance, while regenerating a diversity of plant growth, enriches the landscape and maintains the boundary while producing a verity of fruits and flowers for people and wildlife.

Biomass is the main key to regenerating a landscape. Topsoil takes a long time to form on its own. By layering woody debris and livestock bedding with nitrogen rich dung (mostly made up of pulverized and digested plant matter), we invigorate the degraded soil quality with organic inputs. There are many ways to do this, but the absolute key in any composting mix is carbon. If you take fresh “hot” manure, and dump it in concentration (aka- years of muck from your horse barn/chicken coop) right onto the living soil, you’ll kill the biology with too much nitrogen. This is common practice in industrial farming, though they use chemical fertilizers, which then run off into wild water sources, polluting drinking water across the world.

Woody debris, such as tree clippings, aged wood chips, and fallen branches create great carbon sources for compost. At EEC, we commonly pile large branches, then cover them with livestock bedding- a mix of straw (more carbon) and manure (hot nitrogen), and cap that with cardboard (more carbon). The wood pulp of the boxes keeps water off the hot nitrogen, which will have time to slowly compost in with the branches in rich breakdown of nutrients for the soil over time. In the picture above, we are piling biomass for more than just compost- the red cedar is free standing in an active living space, and food production zone. Before our stewardship began here, the area was lawn. The cedar’s roots were exposed at the surface around the base of the tree where active foot paths, and a lack of any forest debris could collect. In time, the roots would be damaged, causing failure and inevitable dye back of the tree’s root system. We’re rolling out a protective carpet for this cedar, while tending the foot paths, and allowing a cushion of topsoil to return.

Whatever steps you can take to help regenerate the landscape around you is good. If you don’t have a forest, but want to learn more about how to regenerate the living world where you are, start by learning about your bio region and what kind of plants and animals tend that space already. If you’re in a cement jungle, and/or don’t have a lot of time for stewarding land, tend a house plant, and learn about keeping a “micro-biome” alive. Having close contact with soil and plants, as well as animals, invites us to better connect with our own living environment. We notice more about living systems, health, and general quality of life. When we ignore life, it tends to disapear- and that’s what’s happening to our planet’s living systems, right now. Please look to landscapes that are left, and try to support them with your time and energy. Restoration is possible, but it takes active participation for all people who share this rare and precious place.

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