Photo by Rich Bowers

A Cathedral in our Backyard: Saving the Canyon Lake Community Forest

In the long-ago summer of 1995, I visited the “community forest to be” in the foothills of the North Cascades with my 14-year-old daughter Kelsey.

She sat leaning against an old tree in the ancient forest. “No one would ever dream of tearing down the ancient cathedrals in Europe,” she observed. “How could anyone even think about cutting down this ancient forest?”

The story of saving Canyon Lake Community Forest began a few years earlier, in 1993. Shirley Van Zanten, Whatcom County’s County Executive, had compiled a list of privately owned Whatcom County lands that she felt should be publicly owned. She approached the Whatcom Land Trust (WLT) to find a way to move the lands to public ownership. The view and waterfront property on Van Zanten’s list, prime for development and recreation, was far too expensive for Whatcom County to buy. Trillium, a local company, owned most of that property and also held extensive timberlands in Whatcom County. WLT approached the State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) with the idea of a land exchange that would move these lands from private to public ownership.

The Community Forest reminds one of the ancient cathedrals of Europe—the soaring space, the mottled light, the smell of antiquity, the connection to the past, the promise of the future, the shared experience across generations looking for something greater than ourselves.

To make the exchange supportive of DNR’s central mission of revenue production from forest management, DNR engaged Trillium and expanded the exchange to focus on consolidating or “blocking up” DNR and Trillium’s respective ownership of forest parcels. Meanwhile, DNR was folding some 10,000 acres of property on Van Zanten’s list into the trade. DNR and Trillium were motivated to improve forest management efficiency; Whatcom County and WLT were motivated to move key parcels from private to public ownership. Working together, DNR and Trillium enlarged the complex land exchange to encompass some 27,000 acres. It came to be known as the Great Land Exchange of 1993.

Photo by Rand Jack


Meanwhile, two local hikers, who liked to prowl the off-the-beaten-path woods of Whatcom County, found some large stumps on DNR property on the ridge near Canyon Creek’s headwaters, high above the Middle Fork of the Nooksack River. The stumps were next to what appeared to be an old-growth forest owned in part by DNR. Counting the stump’s growth rings was difficult because they were so fine, but it was clear that the trees had been very old. The friends reported their discovery to WLT.

Though WLT had been the land exchange cheerleader for months, when it came time to sign off on the deal in a room full of stakeholders and computer jockeys, the Land Trust hesitated. I told the Trillium representatives that WLT could not support the exchange because a substantial old-growth forest property on the ridge above Canyon Creek moving from public DNR ownership to private Trillium ownership was going in the wrong direction. After receiving dagger glances from Trillium representatives, WLT and Trillium agreed to conduct a professional forest assessment. Given its altitude and orientation, Trillium would commit to making a good-faith effort to conserve the forest if it were deemed an unusual forest. If not, WLT would back off.

Painting by Susan Bennerstrom. Courtesy of Rand Jack


We each nominated someone to do the assessment. Trillium came up with Beak, Inc., and representing the Land Trust, I contacted forest ecologist James Agee at the U of W School of Forestry.  With a little poking around, I learned that the principal at Beak Inc. was Agee’s former student. So I told Trillium, “Why hire the student when you can hire the professor for the same price.” And that was that.

Starting on the ridge above the 750-acre old forest, Canyon Creek eventually empties into the Middle Fork of the Nooksack River just south of where the North and Middle Forks merge. A landslide dammed the creek some 200 years ago to form the 45-acre Canyon Lake. In the Mountain Hemlock Zone, Mountain Hemlock, Alaska yellow cedar, and Pacific silver fir characterize the forest. It ranges in elevation from 3400 to 4360 feet and stands on north-facing slopes. The forest catches the moist air from the Pacific, causing frequent fog, heavy rainfall, and extremely deep snowpack that melts slowly due to the forest’s north-facing slopes.  These critical ingredients have enabled the forest to escape the fires that have historically swept the Cascades every 300 to 400 years.  

I got Dr. Agee’s report in November 1993, just as I was about to board a plane for Chile. When I began to read, a smile spread across my face. Agee had taken core samples only from mountain hemlocks, the largest but not the oldest trees. On a 20 x 20-meter plot, Agee found five mountain hemlocks that were more than 800 years old. Extrapolation of the data indicated the likelihood of 50 such trees per acre. His conclusion was clear. “The CLOG [Canyon Lake Old Growth] parcel is one of the oldest forest stands in the Pacific Northwest.” (T)his is a remarkably old stand within the context of the Pacific Northwest.”

Russ Pfiefer-Hoyt and work party. Photo by Rand Jack

According to the Seattle Times (11/10/97), when Agee first set foot in the old forest, “he quickly sized up the tall stands of mountain hemlock and Alaska yellow cedar as 300 to 500 years old. A nice old-growth forest, he thought. Not an extraordinary one.”  But a very different picture emerged when he took mountain hemlock core samples back to his office for processing. “When I sanded them down and counted the rings, I thought, Oh, my God, these are very old trees…what I’m seeing is rare because they are so old,” he said. The article in the Times amplified the importance of the forest beyond Whatcom County. 

In 1997, Trillium granted an option to purchase the 350-acre holding in the ancient forest it had received from DNR in the Great Land Exchange. WLT formed a partnership with the Trust for Public Land, a national conservation organization, to pursue the purchase of the forest. That same year, Trillium sold its holding in the Canyon Creek Valley to Portland-based Crown Pacific, which owned the remainder of the forest. So now WLT had a cooperative and an enthusiastic partner personified by Crown Pacific’s timberland manager, Russ Paul.

Russ quickly agreed to honor and expand the purchase option to include the entire 750 acres of old-growth forests and the adjoining naturally reproduced younger forest that closely matches the old forest in conifer diversity. But there was a deadline. The option expired at the end of November 1998.

The sale price—$3,690,000 ($6,810,047 in today’s dollars), was more money than WLT had ever even dreamed of raising. But then, we had never had a cathedral of ancient trees within reach.

Mt. Baker from the ridge. Photo by Alan Fritzberg


Our big break came when the Trust for Public Land put WLT in contact with the Seattle-based Paul Allen Foundation. I took the Foundation’s representative, Bill Pope, to see the forest. As we sat on a big rock at the forest edge, looking down at Canyon Lake and the Canyon Creek Valley, Bill asked, “What exactly do you want to purchase?”  I pointed to the adjacent forest and replied, “The stand of old-growth trees.” He said, “You’re thinking too small. You need to buy the whole valley, and we’ll give you half of the money.”  And that is what the Paul Allen Foundation and WLT did. The project now included the 750-acre ancient forest, the 45-acre lake, 1,460 acres of young, mixed conifer forests (today ranging from 30+ to 70 years old), numerous streams, and 50-million-year-old palm fossils.  

Recognizing the impact of the $1,846,000 vote of confidence from the Allen Foundation, I contacted WLT’s most persistent and generous supporter. She agreed to anonymously donate one million dollars. The project now seemed possible.

Jerry Franklin speaking at the press conference in the forest. Photo courtesy of Rand Jack.

To celebrate and build on these amazing gifts, WLT scheduled a press conference in the forest for July 8, 1998, and invited preeminent forest ecologist Dr. Jerry Franklin, Professor of Ecosystem Analysis at the University of Washington School of Forestry, to speak in the forest about the forest. Franklin is often referred to as the “Father of Old-Growth Forests” because of his pioneering scientific work with colleagues to show that old-growth forests are complex, unique ecosystems and his tireless advocacy for protecting these forests. Here is some of what he told us as we listened among the ancient trees:

“If you want to see the oldest representatives of our species, you come to a place like this where it’s cool and moist, and the tempo of the life processes is relatively slow. So here, because of their ‘I’ll grow slowly, but I’ll last a lot longer’ kind of philosophy, you have trees that exhibit their maximum lifespans. The mountain hemlocks here are 800 years or older, the oldest of any mountain hemlocks, and the silver furs are probably…650 to 700 years old, again one of the oldest tree species on the site. Some of the Alaska cedar are over 1000 years old. In fact, they may live for another 2000 years. So one of the neat things about this particular forest and place, if left to its own devices, it’ll probably persist as it is for the next 1000 years, 2000 years because it’s not a place where fire comes frequently, but a place where all of the species are quite capable of perpetuating themselves in essentially this form forever.”

Newly-elected Whatcom County Executive Pete Kremen was at the press conference, as was Crown Pacific’s Russ Paul. Kremen said at the time that he thought WLT “could expect to see a substantial amount of money from Whatcom County,” sourced from the voter-approved tax levy Conservation Futures Fund. “This is exactly the kind of project the Conservation Futures Fund was made for,” he declared. His words were just what we needed to hear. Pete later told me that his work to help acquire the community forest was probably the most important thing he did in his tenure as county executive.

Photo by Rand Jack

Ominously, as we left the press conference, a huge, two-prop helicopter flew across the valley from a nearby logging operation with a giant log dangling from a cable as if to say, “Don’t let this happen to you.”

Smaller donations also began to flow in. For instance, Derek Franklin, age 10, contributed a portion of his allowance to help save an old-growth forest. Derek wrote: “I’m donating because I recently received a Super Nintendo system, and I wanted to donate money to help balance the world between electronics and nature.”

With the deadline looming, Crown Pacific reduced the sale price by $146,000, leaving us exactly $700,000 short.

WLT marshaled endorsements from an unusual coalition of environmental, business, timber, and real estate groups. In response, the County Council unanimously voted on September 29, 1998, to allocate $700,000 from the Conservation Futures Fund to “seal the deal.” As an added bonus, Crown Pacific donated to WLT a 98-acre riparian conservation easement 2.5 miles long and 200 feet wide on both sides of Canyon Creek below the purchased property.

The Return of the Fossil. Photo by Rand Jack

In front of the Crown Pacific office in Hamilton, WA, I had noticed an intact 50-million-year-old palm frond fossil that the company had removed from the forest site. While preparing to close the purchase, I told Russ Paul, “There is one more thing.”  Russ looked at me quizzically. “You need to return the fossil to where it belongs.” Russ smiled and said, “OK.” 

The transaction closed on December 1, 1998. WLT donated the entire Canyon Lake Community Forest jointly to Whatcom County and Western Washington University and retained a restrictive conservation easement protecting the property in perpetuity.

On June 3, 2002, I saw a cloud of dust moving up Canyon Creek Road. The dust was following a flatbed truck with a giant, 6-ton slab of rock strapped to it. This was no ordinary rock. It contained the 50-million-year-old fossil. True to his word, Russ Paul was sending the fossil home. Moved up the trail 150 feet from the parking lot by a massive excavator, the fossil now sits ready to receive visitors.

Everyone who visits the Community Forest benefits from the handiwork of master trail and bridge builder Russ Pfeiffer-Hoyt. Combining technical expertise and a relentless aesthetic eye, Russ builds trails not just to get from one place to another but to enhance the experience of the natural world by those who walk those trails. His expertise is evident in the Russ-built trail that wanders through the ancient forest and emerges on a ridge with an all-of-a-sudden expansive view of Mt Baker. With help from Eric Carrabba, Russ also built a 50-foot bridge spanning Canyon Creek, where it enters the lake.

Russ Pfeiffer-Hoyt and Eric Carrabba at work on the bridge spanning Canyon Creek. Photo by Rand Jack

WLT conservation plans for the Community Forest called for the road leading from Canyon Lake up to and along the ridge above the old-growth forest to be converted into a foot trail. The project meant the removal of culverts from seven stream crossings and replacing them with bridges. To cover the expense of removal and construction, in October 1999, the Land Trust put out a call to business and individual supporters with an opportunity to “buy a bridge.”  The response was quick and enthusiastic. In short order, REI, Morse Distribution Company, Tasco Refinery, Brett & Daugert Law Firm, The Bellingham Herald, and two individual supporters bought bridges. Russ Pfeiffer-Hoyt and Eric Carrabba built them, aided by Russ’s daughter Karen.  

 I had dreamed about protecting the ancient forest for five years when someone finally asked me, “Why in your heart do you really want to preserve this forest?”

I knew and believed all the right answers – biodiversity, endangered species, natural heritage, future generations, water quality – but these are not the reasons that convinced my heart. Instead, as I reflected, two reasons took shape. The first had to do with awe and humility. When we stand in the presence of thousand-year-old yellow cedar trees and eight-hundred-year-old mountain hemlocks, we know that there is something more significant, enduring, whole, and harmonious than we are. We can experience a new understanding of our relationship to other living things, of our place in the scheme of things.

As expressed by my young daughter, the Community Forest reminds one of the ancient cathedrals of Europe—the soaring space, the mottled light, the smell of antiquity, the connection to the past, the promise of the future, the shared experience across generations looking for something greater than ourselves. We use the same word: Sanctuary for the cathedral and the nature reserve. A space inviolate.

Having an ethical relationship with someone means having a special respect for them and a special obligation of care. We see this most readily in our relationships with family and friends. As Aldo Leopold observed, ethical relationships can also extend to other living things. From the moment we walk into the ancient forest, we can feel an intense respect and an obligation, not just to refrain from harming the forest but to protect and care for it. Anything that has lived for a thousand years possesses a moral imperative to be left alone. Nature has proven her abilities and wisdom here and only incredible arrogance could lead to disturbing this forest.

Photo by Rand Jack


A second heartfelt reason for protecting the forest has to do with community. This is a community forest. Jointly owned by Whatcom County and Western Washington University and protected by a conservation easement held by WLT, the community forest provides opportunities for public recreation, environmental education, and scientific research.  It also offers an opportunity for us as a community to grow in our understanding of our stewardship responsibilities.

Like the cathedrals of Europe and the village Commons of New England, the community forest is a shared space. It can help give us a sense of shared meaning and common purpose. Moreover, a community forest growing when Leif Erikson set foot on our shores may give us a clearer focus as we look to the future.

The Canyon Lake Community Forest opened to the public in 2001. Its 2,266 acres include a 7.5-mile roundtrip trail through an ancient forest that ends on a ridge with gorgeous views of Mt. Baker and a 2-mile loop trail around a 45-acre lake sporting wild cutthroat trout. These fish make their way from the Nooksack Middle Fork three miles up Canyon Creek to the lake (and maybe beyond). Camping, fires, pets, motorized vehicles, and bikes are prohibited.

But there is one major problem. In 2017, a major slide closed the access road to the Community Forest. Clearing the slide would be very expensive, and engineers say that the area where the slide occurred is unstable, and the blockage could reoccur at any time. However, an alternative public access route crosses a half-mile stretch of a Sierra Pacific (not to be confused with Crown Pacific, now out of business) forest road. County Parks has tried unsuccessfully for years to negotiate an easement across the Sierra Pacific Road to regain access. Recent events give some promise that the unexpected obstacle may soon be removed.

It is the 25th anniversary of our community assuming responsibility for the Canyon Lake Community Forest. The trees—Alaska yellow cedar, mountain hemlock, and Pacific silver fir—are all a little bit older. After a five-year hiatus because of the access dispute with Sierra Pacific, we have high hopes that the public will again have access to its Community Forest during the coming summer through the intervention of County Executive Satpal Sidhu.

Happy Anniversary.

Reconnecting with Canyon Lake

By Satpal Sidhu

I have directed county staff to prioritize engagement with Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI) to restore public access to Canyon Lake Community Forest. This is very unique place, and it’s important that residents and visitors of Whatcom County be able to experience the magic of this ancient forest. 

We are actively negotiating with SPI, and our respective legal counsels are reviewing draft easements that would allow the public to cross private logging roads to get to the trailhead and enjoy all that the park has to offer. Unfortunately, I cannot provide a more definitive timeline than “as soon as possible.” 

I anticipate that there will be some costs related to the easements and associated road maintenance. This means that our timeline will need to factor in discussions with County Council regarding a budget allocation. I share the public’s frustration that this process has taken so long, but I’ve seen meaningful progress in recent months. I am committed to seeing this through and look forward to a re-opening celebration in the not-too-distant future!

Satpal Sidhu is Whatcom County Executive.

Rand Jack is a tree hugger of the first order. He likes to look at trees, think about trees, plant trees, and carve birds out of former trees. He opens each new piece of wood in reverent anticipation for what will be inside – the color, patterns, and perfect imperfections. Rand remembers the first time he saw a robin sitting in a tree he had planted.  


  1. Barbara Davidson

    Thank you for this article, Rand. Another great story.
    Be well,

  2. Going to see this old growth forest has for several years been been a deep desire for me. I had been stumped why it’s been left inaccessible for so long. It is so exciting that Satpal Sidhu is prioritizing access.

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