« Return to this article

Know the West

Stepping lightly in a sanctuary


COTTONWOOD, Idaho - Sister Carol Ann Wassmuth grabs one of the ropes dangling from a ceiling at St. Gertrude's Monastery.

"If you pull too hard, the bell flips all the way over," she says, demonstrating how to summon 78 Benedictine sisters to midday Mass. Soon, three bells send a joyful sound across the high plains. When the ringing stops, Wassmuth explains that an upended bell requires someone agile to climb into the tower and set things right. She's done that. But then, she's good at balancing acts.

For nearly a decade, this former teacher has managed the forest land owned by her religious community. She wants the woods to be healthy, and with mostly older nuns living here, she also needs the pines and firs to be profitable.

Her approach to forestry, and to life, is rooted in her certainty that people should see themselves as part of all creation.

"It's not just us and God," she says. "Who we are is intertwined with nature."

Professional foresters are impressed by Wassmuth's efforts. Richard Talbott of the Idaho Department of Lands considers her a fine example for landowners.

"Sister Carol Ann is like a sponge. Anything that goes past her that would be of use to her is plied and learned and studied. ... She learned about tree species, logging and taxes, grasped onto it and applied it to her ground," Talbott says. "People no longer chuckle about forest management at the convent."

The sisters used to be like most nonindustrial landowners. When they needed money, they would simply hire loggers and send them out to cut trees. There was no plan. "We're all amazed that our woods are in as good shape as they are," says Wassmuth. "They could have clear-cut it."

In 1993, the Benedictines adopted a formal land-use philosophy. One of its five points calls for "using the land for financial profit in a responsible manner, always seeking to maintain the quality of soil, air and water and the healthy balance of animal and plant life."

The philosophy goes beyond decisions about whether to cut trees, says Sister Mary Kay Henry, the prioress of the monastery. For example, the Benedictines, who came to the Northwest from Europe in 1882, and to this area in Idaho in 1910, buy many products in bulk to avoid individual packaging. Before getting the latest electronic gadget, they ask themselves if the technology is necessary.

The Benedictines wanted to be self-sufficient, like their sisters in the old country. They still lease land for grazing and farming, and they grow and preserve much of their food.

"I'm convinced that care of the environment is our basic social issue," Wassmuth says. "It doesn't do a heck of a lot of good to fight for people's rights if all you can give them is a sick planet."

"I want to be a forester"

Wassmuth, a vigorous 56, was one of nine children raised on an area farm. The monastery has been her home base since she graduated from high school next door.

She left to earn two college degrees, including a master's in education. She stayed away, teaching children in Catholic schools and adults in parish programs. In the 1980s, she worked in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, with her brother, Bill Wassmuth, a civil rights activist who has since left the priesthood.

In 1989, Carol Ann Wassmuth went home to the monastery, intending to help out only for a year. She ended up staying after being asked to head a committee on land stewardship for the sisters' 1,400 acres.

After attending a workshop on forest health, she says, "I came back and said, "I know what I want to be when I grow up! I want to be a forester."

Wassmuth's flair for organization and follow-through made her a good choice for land manager, says monastery Prioress Henry. "She's always had a bent for science. She wants to know the 'why' of things."

Wassmuth soon learned enough to write a management plan for 200 acres behind the monastery. One of its priorities is to keep those woods pretty - a quiet, reflective getaway for the sisters and the many visitors who attend retreats and elderhostels.

She interviewed a lot of loggers before hiring neighbor Don Geis. She was looking for someone who wouldn't patronize a nun. "The one who said, 'Sweetie, you let me come take care of you' - he was out of here real fast," she recalls.

But when it came to managing a separate 800 acres on Cottonwood Butte, Wassmuth felt she was getting into the forestry thicket way over her head. So she suggested hiring Northwest Management Inc., a Moscow, Idaho, consulting firm.

Recalls company president Vincent Corrao: "When we presented the management plan, we had to present it to I don't know how many sisters ...

"I worked for the Nez Perce tribe for 10 years," he adds. "That's probably the closest thing I've seen to this, where you have a community involved in forest management."

The big decisions, such as hiring a management firm, are made by a vote of a council of nuns. But the sisters rely heavily on Wassmuth's judgment.

Wassmuth honed her skills so well that she's now invited to speak at forestry gatherings. But she never stops finagling information from the experts. One ploy is to invite them for lunch.

"Then you have to go for a walk in the woods to tell her the latest things, or look at her latest problems," says Talbott.

Like a typical forester, she can't pass a piece of wooded ground without scrutinizing its condition. She will preach the gospel of proper thinning and habitat protection at the drop of a pine needle.

Wassmuth doesn't plan to retire until she's 83, so she can carry out her 30-year management plan for the convent hill. She's convinced that working in the woods will keep her robust. Even while enduring chemotherapy and radiation therapy for breast cancer, she found the energy to visit Cottonwood Butte.

There's been no sign of recurring cancer in four years. "I went through all of that treatment with flying colors."

Trees emit energy that scientists actually can measure, Wassmuth points out.

"When I'm feeling weary of the world, there are times when I'll throw my arms around a tree and say, 'I need your help.' "

Julie Titone reports on rural issues in northern Idaho.

You can contact ...

* Sister Carol Ann Wassmuth, 208/962-3224.