ANACORTES — The Anacortes Community Forest Lands are changing.

Greenery is coming back to an area of Little Cranberry Lake that was burned in a 2016 fire, while the needles of Western red cedars have browned throughout the forest in recent years.

Meanwhile, a new group of volunteers is beginning to monitor the forest lands, and the nonprofit Friends of the Forest is gaining its first executive director, Asa Deane.

“I could not be more exited to work with Friends of the Forest, both the organization, as well as the people that utilize the incredible resource,” Deane said in a news release. “My first time hiking in this forest, along the Heart Lake trails, I was amazed that such a place existed within the city limits and how lucky the people of Anacortes are to have it.”

The Anacortes Community Forest Lands is a 2,800-acre patchwork of forest on Fidalgo Island. Within it are Little Cranberry, Whistle and Heart lakes, as well as a variety of lush vegetation such as big leaf maples and Douglas firs.

About 25 volunteers trekked along a trail in the forest lands Monday to learn how to conduct citizen science to track the forest’s health.

“I am so impressed by the culture of stewardship and care that people around Fidalgo are demonstrating,” said Jack Hartt, one of the leaders of the volunteer monitoring program that it is in development for the forest lands.

The forest lands are managed as city land, although some of it is in unincorporated Skagit County, Anacortes Parks and Recreation Department Director Jonn Lunsford said. The city’s goal is to maintain the forest lands for wildlife habitat preservation and public recreation.

Lunsford said one welcome change in recent years is a resurgence of beavers living around the lakes and wetlands in the forest lands.

Other changes are less welcome, like the browning of iconic cedar trees following long, dry summers, Anacortes forest ranger Dave Oicles said.

A NEW PROJECT

The volunteers who visited the forest lands Monday were led by members of the nonprofit Transition Fidalgo & Friends. They hiked part of the way toward Whistle Lake as the morning sun filtered through the trees.

The group was training for the volunteer Anacortes Community Forest Lands Forest Monitoring project, which is being led by Transition Fidalgo with support from the city and Friends of the Forest, Hartt said.

Volunteers learned how to inventory the types, health and size of trees and shrubs within a circular plot.

University of Washington forest scientist Dave Peterson and Padilla Bay research scientist Roger Fuller demonstrated how to use different tools to determine the height of a tree.

Peterson said a particularly important factor in monitoring tree health is determining at what level the tree has greenery, or foliage.

“The height of the foliage of the tree expresses the vigor of that tree,” he said.

A tree that is lacking foliage, such as the increasingly common browning cedars, may be stressed or even dead.

Hartt said the volunteer group will conduct citizen science at specific plots throughout the forest lands, including near Whistle Lake and Little Cranberry Lake, at least twice a year starting this spring.

Volunteers will also take measurements more frequently at wetlands in the forest lands, primarily during the spring and summer months, to help determine how water resources change and if certain ponds dry out.

Hartt said about 50 volunteers have signed up to participate in the long-term project.

In addition to various measurements, volunteers will also collect photos at the monitoring sites and eventually learn the practice of tracking phenology — the timing of annual changes in vegetation and wildlife.

“The information will be used to have baselines and ongoing studies in the Anacortes Community Forest Lands to see what changes are taking place, and to track these changes through the coming years as the climate in the Pacific Northwest changes,” Hartt said.

TRACKING CHANGES

City staff, scientists and members of Transition Fidalgo said the community has expressed a clear interest in wanting to help document how the forest lands change over time.

“People really value these forest lands; they’re seeing changes, and dying trees get people’s attention,” Peterson said.

Oicles commented on the prevalence of browning cedars, which he pointed out in nearly every direction from a spot on the Whistle Lake Trail. He said he estimates 5,000 of the trees have died throughout the forest lands over the past year, following multiple hot, dry summers.

“We’re in a rain shadow here, so when the Northwest has a drought we are really hit hard,” Oicles said. “Summers are getting longer and hotter, so we’re having too many months with no rain and the trees get stressed.”

The monitoring project could help confirm that drought is the cause of recent cedar die-offs in the area, and whether they will disappear from the regional landscape in the long term.

It could also provide context to the bigger picture of climate change.

“This is more than about the city of Anacortes’ forest lands, it’s about a broader perspective,” Peterson said.

He said data from the local project will be provided to state and national organizations in an effort to help understand how trees and shrubs are affected by climate change throughout Washington and the West.

“Maybe 15, 20 years later you can look at that data and see trends ... What the citizen scientists started doing today is really helpful for us by gathering the data,” Lunsford said.

Collecting that type of data is increasingly difficult as city, state and federal resources are limited.

Eventually, the goal of the monitoring project is to be able to see trends in the range of different tree and plant species as well as changes in phenology.

“When does the bud break, when do they flower, when do the leaves change?” Peterson said of examples of phenology.

He said any information about phenology gathered in the Anacortes Community Forest Lands will be provided to the growing National Phenology Network. The network is an organization seeking data from government, nonprofit, education and volunteer groups to track the impacts of climate change on plants and wildlife across the U.S.

The network’s website says phenology is “nature’s calendar,” and around the world events like fruit trees blooming and birds migrating are happening earlier or later than they used to in response to climate change.

In another part of the forest lands, a rebirth of sorts is underway, with greenery reemerging from the site of an August 2016 fire that burned about 18 acres east of Little Cranberry Lake.

“It’s doing really well,” Oicles said. “We didn’t do any planting and everything we thought was dead, like the salal and ferns, it’s all coming back,” Oicles said.

As the acres of marred forest return to life, forest land visitors can wander through on area trails, which were reopened about a year after the blaze.

The volunteers preparing to monitor changes in the forest will also keep an eye on the burn site, documenting how those acres of forest continues to evolve.

AN EMPHASIS ON EDUCATION

As the forest lands undergo change, some are working to balance public access with preservation through education.

“It’s a delicate balance, and it’s really exciting to get to be a part of the group that maintains that balance,” Deane said while walking a trail along Little Cranberry Lake.

Deane comes to Friends of the Forest from an outdoor education organization in Whatcom County.

The primary difference between roles, he said, is the amount of responsibility he will have as the first executive director of Friends of the Forest.

“I’ve always wanted to be an executive director of a nonprofit and Friends of the Forest hits all the marks that I’m passionate about: forests, conservation and community education,” he said. “When this job came up it blew my mind a little bit that something so perfect arose.”

The organization decided to create an executive director role after long-time education, outreach and development directors Denise Crowe left the organization and Jean Andrich retired.

Deane is now taking the lead on operations of the organization as well as forest education programs, including managing connections with the city, Skagit Land Trust and area schools.

He said his overall goal is to help maintain the forest’s health and keep the community engaged.

“I grew up playing in the outdoors in the Sierra Nevadas, and that has shaped my love of it and the understanding that if we want to protect something, we have to feel connected to it,” he said.

Deane, who has a bachelor’s degree in Earth science and years of experience as a naturalist, is excited to bring his passion and expertise to the Anacortes Community Forest Lands.

He said he’s still getting to know the local forest lands.

“There are so many trails, so much to explore out there,” he said while looking out over Little Cranberry Lake on a sunny morning in April.

The community is invited to meet Deane at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 19, at the Depot Building, 611 R Ave. Friends of the Forest will also share information at the event about new forest education programs it will launch this summer with the Anacortes School District and Boys & Girls Clubs of Skagit County.

“We are really looking forward to providing more opportunities for youth in our community to spend time outdoors this summer learning about the natural world,” forest educator Melissa Courtney said.

— Reporter Kimberly Cauvel: 360-416-2199, kcauvel@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kimberly_SVH, Facebook.com/bykimberlycauvel

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