Printer Friendly

Navy forest steward: managing the navy's ecosystem of the Pacific Northwest.

Far from the treacherous, rocky coast and deep within the pine-scented hollows of the Pacific Northwest, a man pauses for a moment to stare at rays of light piercing through the tops of 1,000-year-old Sitka spruce. Like a Sailor gazing over the horizon during a sunset, he smiles at the beauty of it all.

"This magnificent view is here because of the Navy," said Walter R. Briggs, forester for Naval Facilities Engineering Command, Northwest Engineering Field Activity, in Poulsbo, Wash.

When the Navy is the topic of conversation, most Sailors automatically think of oceans; however, there is another ecosystem to be considered here--the forest.

The Navy owns more than 1 million acres of timbered land throughout the world, although it's how and why this other valuable resource is managed that has established the Navy as a leader in wilderness conservation in the Pacific Northwest.

These forests are an environment that Sailors use for training, recreation, and work. Although, an equally important reason to have the forest is as a lasting example of the Navy's role in preserving natural resources.

The change that has occurred within the Navy in the last 20 years regarding stewardship of the environment, and the emphasis now placed on accomplishing the Navy's mission while also protecting limited natural resources is encouraging according to RADM Len Hering, then-commander, Navy Region Northwest, who spoke at the dedication ceremony for the naming of the Walter Briggs Old-Growth Forest.

"Sailors are the guardians of the forest and the animals that inhabit land where naval activities take place," said Briggs, "It is our responsibility to be caretakers in this shared ecosystem."

What is the right thing to do with the trees on our Navy land? Navy officers sailing on the ocean or sitting at the Pentagon do not make that decision alone. This decision takes a specialist, someone who really understands the Northwest forest and Navy stewardship. Briggs is that man.

Since he was a young child, Briggs liked to walk in the woods. It is his love and passion for the natural wonders that keeps this Navy region in the limelight of environmental stewardship.

Briggs is responsible for natural resource management on hundreds of thousands of acres of Navy land, including more than 15,000 acres of commercial-grade timberland stretching from Arizona to Alaska.

Naval Magazine Indian Island, near Port Townsend, Wash., supports some of the Navy's most modern and sophisticated weapons. But it's also home to a remarkable forest and some even more remarkable forest practices.

"This is a gentler way of logging," said Briggs, describing Tom and Jerry--close to two tons of raw horse-power muscle doing what they were bred to do: pull stuff. And these Percheron horses pull whatever their driver Jerry Harpole tells them to.

"Horses are very powerful animals," said Harpole.

He is a logger who knew there was a better way than mechanized logging. He walked away from the giant machines that rule modern forestry over 20 years ago in favor of Tom and Jerry.

"Now there are no smoky exhausts, loud engines or nasty looking clear cuts," said Harpole.

All he hears are the working sounds of his team of horses and the rustling of the logs gliding through a nearly silent forest.

"You can do good work with machinery," said Harpole. "I have a lot of friends who are machine loggers and do an excellent job, much faster. But it's also hard to do a bad job with horses."

Horse logging is the preferred technique of Briggs, whose sole effort is doing things with an eye toward stewardship, especially when his precious trees are involved.

"These heavy horses seem more a part of the forest than a great big yellow machine," Briggs said. "Despite their size and power, these strong horses tread lightly on the soil and leave few scars on the forest floor."

One of the big concerns in the deep woods is the damage that can be done to the surrounding trees and the trails when machines drag out the big logs.

"The only thing left behind are the horses' tracks and a drag line that looks like someone pulled a large stick across the ground," said Briggs. "And we don't have tire tracks with a lot of weight compacting that soil--which then inhibits future growth."

Briggs' plan is to selectively thin the Navy's overgrown patches to create a more natural, diverse forest that could someday grow into what it was when the pioneers used horses to log it the first time.

"It's like guiding the Navy's future forests down a path through history," said Briggs.

There is such a place on Navy land where the trees have never been logged. A place where a Sailor can stand under the same trees that pioneers might have made a camp around more than a century ago.

This place exists because of Walter Briggs' tenacious efforts, and consequently, he became the first living person to have a Navy forest named after him. These enormous trees survive at Jim Creek Radio Station recreational area, located inland along the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, less than an hour drive from Naval Station Everett.

"The first time I stood in the midst of giant Sitka spruce, I thought, 'This must be saved,'" Briggs said.

"It's rare to name any Department of Defense facility for a living person," said Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for the Environment Donald Schregardus, who presided at the dedication of the forest preserve on June 18, 2005. "But Briggs' ceaseless efforts to save the forest prompted a rare exemption to government policy."

Briggs explained that when the Navy acquired the site from Soundview Pulp Company in 1950, only the land was purchased.

"The commercial timber company kept the rights to harvest the trees on the land, and by 1954, more than 99 percent of the timber had been logged," said Briggs. "The remaining narrow band of trees was pristine, old growth forest covering 225 acres."

It consists of Douglas fir, western red cedar, Sitka spruce and Pacific yew trees. Some of these conifers are up to 10 feet in diameter. Many are more than 300 feet tall and have tree-rings showing ages up to 1,700 years.

"I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw the size of the trees," said Hospital Corpsman 1st Class Ronnie Delosantos, stationed at Oak Harbor Naval Hospital on Whidbey Island. "They are enormous in comparison to the other trees that have obviously been cut earlier. You can really get a sense of what it must have looked like back when the settlers were first entering the region. It is also sad to think this is all that is left," continued Delosantos. "But, these enormous trees could be a wonderful example of what to do with our forest in the future.

The best part of having these gigantic trees on Navy land is that I am able to share this amazing beauty with my family and they are able to gain an appreciation for this rare forest."

"There's no way to recreate a tree like this," Briggs said, pointing to a Western Red Cedar. "When William the Conquerer became King of England at the battle of Hastings in 1066, this tree was already more than 100-feet tall."

Thanks to the Navy, this 225-acre stand of trees is the only remnant of the mighty forests that once stretched from the foothills of the Cascades in eastern Washington state to the shores of the Puget Sound, and home to a nesting colony of marbled murrelets (Brachyramphus marmoratus), a bird listed as threatened in the Pacific Northwest. Here these protected birds find sanctuary among the large branches of the Navy forest.

According to an article written in 2005 by Briggs and Carolyn Lackey, a natural resources specialist at Naval Facilities Engineering Command, Chesapeake Engineering Field Office, Washington Navy Yard, Washington, D.C., entitled; "Navy Saves Old Growth for Murrelets," the forest is vital for this species of birds' survival in the region.

In 1992, through the DOD Legacy Resource Management Program, the Navy purchased the remaining timber in this old-growth forest to preserve it for the future. In 1995, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recognized the importance of this forest by designating it as critical habitat for the marbled murrelet.

"The murrelet is about the size of a robin and the only seabird to nest in old-growth forest," wrote Briggs. "Since the size of its wings does not allow it to create an air cushion to slow itself down like most other birds, the murrelet goes into a dive, turns upside down, and stalls when it wants to land.

At the moment it stalls in flight, it must be located next to a tree limb that is at least seven inches (17 centimeters) in diameter in order to land," continued Briggs. "Marbled murrelets do not build nests; instead, they make shallow depressions in the moss that grows on large, old limbs, and lay a single egg."

Marbled murrelets have continuously nested in this old-growth forest since they were first detected there in 1993.

And the Navy's conservation efforts will allow the rare birds to continue as an integral part of this ecosystem.

"I feel great personal and professional satisfaction in playing a part in preserving this magnificent forest and the animals that live here," said Briggs.

"There's no better example of our pride in preserving the environment than the Walter Briggs Old-Growth Forest," Hering said. "It's been the work of decades to accomplish this, but now the effort of one determined individual has become a shared treasure for all of us to pass down to future generations."

"I am humbled to have my name attached to such an awesome natural wonder," Briggs said.

Frantom is a photojournalist assigned assigned to Naval Media Center

For examples of environmental stewardship around the fleet, visit and click on 'View Story Archive,' and CURRENTS website at

Website Exclusive Find more photos online at /ah200609/feature_2/
COPYRIGHT 2006 U.S. Navy
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2006 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Walter R. Briggs
Author:Frantom, Todd
Publication:All Hands
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2006
Previous Article:Pacific Northwest: duty in the great outdoors.
Next Article:Jim Creek: one of the Navy's best-kept secrets.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters