Business as usual at the Snoqualmie Tree Farm

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SNOQUALMIE VALLEY - For all the changes to the lumber industry in the Snoqualmie Valley in recent years, things appear to be pretty much the same in the Snoqualmie Tree Farm.

There are still trucks rumbling down the mainline road, loggers placing chokers on felled trees and planters dotting the hillsides with infant Douglas firs.

Rather than Weyerhaeuser, Co. doing the work, however, it is Hancock Forest Management, the forestry management organization for the Boston-based Hancock Timber Resource Group. Last May, Hancock purchased the tree farm, which spans more than 100,000 acres between Snoqualmie and the King/Snohomish County line, for $185 million. Since then, Hancock has been working to keep the farm in the timber business, a business it hopes to stay in by replenishing and maintaining the farm.

"Stewardship is about the future," said Julie Stangell, a lands forester based out of Hancock's northwest division office.

Hancock had previously purchased Weyerhaeuser's White River property near Enumclaw and owns two other parcels in the state. With the Snoqualmie Tree Farm acquisition, Hancock increased the amount of timberland acreage it owns in Washington state to 230,000 acres, and is now the largest private land owner in King County.

Hancock got into the forestry business in the 1980s, but formed Hancock Forest Management in 2002 to manage its land. Hancock has purchased land with the intent to lease parcels to companies that harvest timber.

If it sounds similar to what Weyerhaeuser used to do, those who used to work for the former owner of the tree farm said the work is not much different.

Jose Gonzalez, who owns Jose's Reforestation in Chehalis, was helping his crew last week replant trees harvested from the tree farm, a task he has done since 1974. When he was a boy growing up in Mexico, Gonzalez said a Weyerhaeuser representative came to his high school offering work in Washington. Gonzalez signed on and went to work in the woods at the age of 16. He learned the replanting process and in 1990, Gonzalez started his own business. Now his crews are contracted out by Hancock, and other companies, to replant trees.

Gonzalez said there is plenty of business for him. He said there are 24 similar contractors based out of Chehalis alone. Not all are legally sound, but Gonzalez prides himself and his crew on their longevity and legitimacy.

"We are fully insured," he said. "Hancock wouldn't let us up here if we weren't."

While there is plenty of work to go around, it is not for everyone. He said he brings rookies along for a training day to give them an idea of what the work is like, which includes a two-hour trip back and forth to the farm. The crew will plant anywhere from 1,000 to 1,200 trees in a single day.

"When we get back home, they [rookies] will have this look in their eyes. I tell them I don't want them to come back if they will always have that look in their eyes," he said. "I don't make anyone a planter."

On the other side of the farm make anyone a planter."

On the other side of the farm was Roy Solomon, owner of North Bend-based Solomon Logging. He was running machinery and overseeing his crew placing choker cables around felled logs that were pulled up from the side of a hill. Unlike planters, harvesters can work nearly year around, and last week Solomon and his crew braved a cold winter rain to get their work done.

Like Gonzalez, Solomon and the logging business go way back. His first job for Weyerhaeuser was when he got out of high school in 1958. He started his own logging business in 1973 and has also contracted for other companies. His was one of the last companies to work for Weyerhaeuser before it shut down its own operations in the tree farm last year.

When Weyerhaeuser left the Valley, many feared all the logging jobs would leave with it. Many workers did leave, but others stayed and got jobs with outfits similar to Solomon's. Stangell, who used to work for Weyerhaeuser, said others decided to take a year off or retire early. Solomon said he actually has a hard time finding skilled workers to take into the farm.

While the work last week is similar to that done by Weyerhaeuser, it is not "traditional" logging work and it never will be. In their years on tree farms, both Gonzalez and Solomon said they have seen traditional logging practices change to more eco-friendly methods. They still make a living in the woods but regulations have increased the cost of logging.

"It's getting expensive," Solomon said. "Every nickel counts."

Stangell said Hancock wants to be part of that environmentally-sensitive transition and stressed that sustainable harvesting is a key to Hancock's business plan. As part of its planting practice, Hancock plants 360 seedlings per acre, twice the state minimum. Hancock's forestry practices conform to the Sustainable Forestry Initiative Standard, a list of forestry conditions developed in 2000 by the Sustainable Forestry Board (SFB). According to the SFB Web site, Hancock's 2.3-million acres of sustainable forest land is second only to Weyerhaeuser's holdings in the nation.

Stangell said preservation is still a part of the future for the tree farm. An original deal to sell the farm to the Cascade Land Conservancy (CLC) with tax-exempt bonds fell through and Hancock stepped in to make the purchase. Stangell said the CLC is still interested in protecting sensitive areas on the farm, particularly those areas with water.

"Stewardship is a core value [for Hancock]," Stangell said.

In addition to harvesting and planting trees, Hancock is also picking up where Weyerhaeuser left off by allowing recreational access to the farm where people can hunt, hike or fish in one of the farm's 10 lakes. Starting this week, Hancock will begin selling passes to the tree farm for $165, which will include a key to the gate. Stangell said it is a lot of access to give a public user, but she said anyone willing to plunk down $165 will be a good guest on the property.

"We get calls [from people] if they see anything [land abuse], which is great," Stangell said.

While Hancock's main use for the tree farm will be forestry, Stangell said Hancock has a fiduciary responsibility to its investors to get the highest return on the land, and that could include development. How, when or where development would take place has not been decided, but Stangell said selling rights to developers could be a future move for Hancock.

"Discussions are underway," she said.

The land, which sits at the foot of the Cascade Mountains, has sloping hills and is only accessible by a few roads, but developers can adapt to these conditions. Since the early 1900s, people have adapted to the woods. Whether people want to bring out timber or a memory of the woods' natural beauty, the tree farm will be a place where man and nature will continually meet.

"Mother Nature does her business and I do mine," Gonzalez said.

* Hancock will begin selling access passes on Friday, March 12, for $165. The passes allow access to the Snoqualmie Tree Farm on weekends, and from 3:30 p.m. to one hour after sunset on Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays. Passes may be purchased at Ace Hardware in North Bend, 330 Main Ave. S.

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