Old growth or no growth?

Sword and licorice fern grow through thick moss. Bird song — cheeps, chirps, twitters, warbles — filters through trees. Rufous hummingbirds zip through clearings filled with blooming salmonberry and red-flowering currant. Powerful drills from a pileated woodpecker echo around Bocker Reserve at Camp Casey.

Bocker Reserve is a compact section of old-growth forest on Whidbey Island owned by Seattle Pacific University. Island County recently approved a rezone that would allow SPU to expand its conference center. Several groups on the island oppose the development in an area that has never been logged. Those concerned with the univeristy’s proposal are worried more about development in the ancient forest than development on land SPU owns elsewhere at Camp Casey.

“They promise to leave any tree that’s 42-inches or larger,” Marianne Edain of Whidbey Environmental Action Network said. WEAN members believe any development in that particular part of the forest would mean eventual destruction of all the entire old-growth section from soil disruption to increased blow-down of trees.

SPU officials didn’t return calls, but said previously clearing a total of five acres won’t threaten the entire forest. They said it’s in their best interest to preserve the area.

While large tracts of forest can be found on Whidbey Island, very few patches of old-growth remain. Land that has never been logged is special, according to Whidbey Audubon member Bob Merrick, who leads field trips in the woods.

“It’s a living record of how that ecosystem developed,” he said. “That forest is a potential lab to study how coastal forests evolved in the Pacific Northwest.”

Merrick said that many birds find sanctuary in the brush and branches. As the area opens he said birds that need heavy cover would move out, crowding certain habitats heavily.

“An entire natural chain of life lives in that very old, pristine forest,” he said.

That chain includes pileated woodpeckers, large, red-crested birds that rely on grubs found in under bark of old trees and snags for nesting. Many trees in Bocker Reserve bear the distinctive oval excavations of pileated woodpeckers. Other birds that live their include juncoes, robins, owls, chickadees, kinglets, creepers and nuthatches along with woodland hawks that Gary Piazzon calls “forest ninjas.”

Piazzon, conservation chair for Whidbey Audubon, says these birds have to be incredibly agile flyers to negotiate thick cover. The small raptors keep the forest healthy as well as helping keep the rodent population down with “significant culling.”

“What SPU is proposing to do to so small, so special an area would be tragic,” Piazzon said. “When you walk through old-growth forest, you get a different feel from the size of a mature forest.”

Merrick said the biggest impact of development would be the loss of unlogged forest.

“Development in that part of the forest would do inevitable damage to irreplaceable habitat that’s vanishing everywhere,” he said.

The Bocker Reserve doesn’t have only large old trees. Small shrubs like salmonberry and red elderberry grow there. So do fern and flowers. Moss and lichen coat fallen logs, breaking down the trees over long periods of time, providing more nutrition and habitat for more plants, along with insects, birds and mammals.

“The community as a whole survives,” Edain said. “Fungus and Douglas-fir survive together.”

Banana slugs crawl over frog pelt lichen. Winter wrens forage in bracken and sword fern. Towhees call from salmonberry and red elderberry . Very few non-native, invasive species like Himalayan blackberry, Canada thistle or English ivy can be found in the reserve. If development comes, that would change Edain said. “Development would guarantee exotics and invasives,” she said. “They thrive in distured ground.”

“We think there are alternate areas SPU could use for a center,” Edain said. “What SPU wants to do isn’t evil, but the plan’s execution is abysmal.”

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