Tree Farmers

TUMWATER, Wash. — Ken and Bonnie Miller’s tree farm is well off the beaten track, but plenty of folks have found their way to their home in the woods.

Over the past 20 years, the Millers have extended the welcome mat to school groups and others wanting to see how they work their 40 acres of fir, cedar and alder trees. Ken Miller has also taken the message of small forest landowners to the state Legislature and to foresters in other states.

Those outreach efforts are a big part of what has earned the Millers the title of Washington Tree Farmers of the Year.

“Notice it says ‘tree farmers,’ not ‘tree farm,'” Ken Miller said. “This is not a model farm, but a demonstration farm — a demonstration of mistakes I have made.”

When the Millers purchased this property in 1993, it was “patchy,” he said. So the two of them started filling in the patches. “It was wall-to-wall Scotch broom, so we started spraying and covering bare soil.

“We got a tree going everywhere there ought to be a tree,” he said. That’s 6,000 fir trees and 3,000 cedar trees so far. At their other property near Oakville, the Millers planted 18,000 trees after a harvest. Apart from some professional help at Oakville, the two have done all the work themselves.

Ken, 69, and Bonnie, 70, have been married 48 years, but have been together for 64 years, since first grade. He retired in 2000 after 35 years in marketing research and sales with timberland owner Champion International; she is retired from teaching.

“We’ll keep working till we die,” Bonnie Miller said. Their three kids and seven grandkids “all have been involved (with the tree farm) to some extent.” The young workers are paid their age per hour, “and they’re required to save some percentage for college. Then we match that.”

Fewer than 20 loads of logs, at about $1,000 a load, have rolled out since the Millers took over the land.

“The objective is not to harvest right away,” Ken Miller said. “That’s our nest egg and the educational fund for our grandchildren.”

The well-groomed forest has become a classroom, where schoolchildren have learned about the need for “regenerative harvest,” sometimes called clear-cut, because fir trees need full sun.

“They learn how horizontal (harvested) trees are just as important as vertical trees,” he said.

The educational outreach has started to pay off as mainstream environmental groups have recognized the value of working forests, he said.

He said he struggles to get conversations going about alternative prescriptions for lower-impact harvest and about the need for the state to keep its commitment to small forest landowners. The state’s Forest Riparian Easement Program was designed to reimburse landowners for timber they cannot harvest in order to protect forest stream habitat for salmon and other fish.

Private forest landowners are also pressured because their property, which tends to be closer to communities, is ripe for development, he said. “I get letters every week from people wanting to buy our land.”

Also frustrating for the Millers is what they see from the corner of their tree farm that touches Scott Lake: “We understand the need to have buffers (where pesticides cannot be applied), but other landowners can use chemicals down to the shoreline.”

Field day set for June 15

The Millers will open their tree farm for a day of family activities from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. June 15. They expect 50 to 100 visitors to join a walk through the forest as a wildlife specialist talks about animals and habitat. Youngsters will assemble birdhouses. A demonstration of pre-commercial thinning will include restoration efforts on a pocket of root rot. Bonnie Miller will also lead a quilting show-and-tell.

The South Sound Farm Forestry Association, an affiliated chapter of the Washington Farm Foresty Association, is co-sponsor of the event.

Information: 370-705-1888