My God! Healthy trees!

  • Sister Carol Ann Wassmuth: managing a forest for spiritual exaltation

    Jan Gantz

Note: this article in one of several feature stories in a special issue about the West's land grant universities and their extension programs.

Cottonwood, Idaho - Sister Carol Ann Wassmuth of St. Gertrude's Monastery wants to be reincarnated as the monastery porcupine so she can keep an eye on the progress of the 1,000 acres of forest she manages.

"I want to make sure the younger nuns are doing a good job."

In her small office sits a hard hat and tool belt, a stack of natural history field guides, and a coffee mug emblazoned with the words "Hug a Tree." Her prize possession is a well-read copy of Aldo Leopold's Sand County Almanac, a gift from her friend and mentor, former University of Idaho extension forester Bill Schlosser.

"I started from scratch," the 50-ish Wassmuth says. "Five years ago I couldn't tell the difference between a pine tree and a fir tree. I took every forestry course I could find. This year I managed my first timber sale."

Schlosser was a key player in Wassmuth's transformation. After taking his seven-week "short course" on forest management, Wassmuth issued an immediate ban on logging and took a year to write a forest management plan that reflects the philosophy of the monastery's 90 members. She came up with two definite goals for two diverse parcels of land.

The 120-acre forest of ponderosa pine, grand fir and Douglas fir directly behind the monastery is managed for aesthetics, songbirds and wild flowers. The Benedictine sisters use this forest for solitude and spiritual reflection. Stations of the Cross and a small grotto and cemetery are here; the blue porphyry stone used almost a century ago to build the monastery was quarried within this small forest.

Conversely, on nearby Cottonwood Butte, directly north of the monastery, 880 acres of spruce and larch are managed for sustainable income. The monastery consults with professional foresters, but Wassmuth calls the shots. A selective harvest thinned out 6 acres of genetically inferior trees in the smaller, 120-acre parcel. Thirty thousand board-feet of wood were harvested according to Wassmuth's careful instructions. "I told them that by the summer I didn't want it to look like it had been logged."

The fruits of Sister Carol Ann's labors will be seen when she is in her 80s, or later, when she is a porcupine. At night, when the monastery is quiet, she says she can close her eyes and in her mind walk through the forest examining each and every tree.

Can economics, ecology and spirituality co-exist? Wassmuth thinks so. St. Gertrude's philosophy of land use is stated in the management plan. "In order to live in harmony with the earth and to promote responsible stewardship we commit ourselves ... to 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 ..."

Extension foresters, often overlooked among the usual plows-and-cows mandate within the University of Idaho College of Agriculture, help forest landowners increase their knowledge and management skills. Classes range from estate planning to forest ecosystems. They fit the needs of three groups: private woodland owners, professional foresters, such as consultants, and loggers. Right now, high timber prices are sending a lot of private woodland owners back to school. A recent seven-week forest management short course had a waiting list of 40.

University of Idaho extension foresters try their best to introduce the idea of a land ethic: "We need to help foster an ethic but not say what it should be," says University of Idaho extension forester Ron Mahoney, whose first slide at last March's "Managing the Family Forest" conference was of an owl. "The fact that you own land means you have a responsibility. Some people look at their forest as simply money in the bank without looking at it in a generational and ecological way.

"We try to give people a wide range of factual knowledge to merge with their own feelings about stewardship and ethics."

Mahoney is headquartered in the College of Forestry and Range Sciences in Moscow, and his remaining field extension forester, Chris Schnepf, is at the Kootenai County Extension Office in Coeur d'Alene. Schlosser left last July for a similar position at Michigan State University. Because of budget cuts, the vacancy was frozen for months, although it may be filled soon.

Wassmuth's reforestation plan calls for cleaning up poor logging practices of the past, a theme echoed by other forest landowners interviewed for this article.

"I wish I could undo the past 20 years," Wassmuth says. "What we had done in the past was call up a logger and say, "Go log." They would take the best and leave the rest."

Leaving genetically inferior trees flies in the face of good forest management, according to Schnepf. "Generally, we try to cut the weak, the sick, and the lame, and leave higher quality trees. Leaving trees with more vigorous growth and form promotes a high return in future harvests because of faster growth rates and logs with higher quality wood."

Wise forest management challenges the common view in America of instant economic gratification. Trees require time, and a good forest management plan outlives the original author and reaches out to future generations. "Forests take longer to mature than we do," Schlosser says with a smile.

Stephen J. Lyons writes from Moscow, Idaho.

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