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A view of Tarboo Creek flowing into Tarboo Bay.

Saving Tarboo Creek

One Family’s Quest to Heal the Land

A Leopold Tradition Continues

Scott Freeman and Susan Leopold Freeman met as Leopold Fellows in the summer of 1980 (with Konrad Leigel whose blog post was featured in June). Susan, is the daughter of Carl Leopold, Aldo’s fourth child. The two eventually married and moved to the Pacific-Northwest where they purchased land and became involved in the ecological restoration of the Tarboo Creek area. Scott and Susan also have two grown sons, who are great-grandsons of Aldo Leopold – a fourth generation working passionately to heal the land.

Book Cover of Saving Tarboo CreekThe following is an excerpt taken from Saving Tarboo Creek © 2018 by Scott Freeman with illustrations by Susan Leopold Freeman. Published by Timber Press, Portland, Oregon, and used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

A Stream is Born

In 2004 our family bought an 18-acre parcel that straddles the main channel of Tarboo Creek. When we did, we joined a community of individuals and organizations working to reforest abandoned pastures and degraded wetlands in the valley in hopes of restoring Tarboo Creek as a high-functioning salmon stream. Most of the individuals involved are private landowners in the watershed; the organizations include county, state, and federal government agencies, local Indian tribes, and private nonprofits like the Jefferson Land Trust. The entire project is coordinated by salmon biologist Peter Bahls, who directs the Northwest Watershed Institute (NWI).

Chum swimming in Tarboo Creek

Chum salmon swimming in Tarboo Creek.

By the time we got involved, the project was already gaining momentum. The 160-acre tract that includes that patch of old growth near Tarboo Bay had recently been purchased by the State of Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. The acquisition went through just before the tract was scheduled for clear-cutting by a private forest products company. The biggest Sitka spruces would’ve been spared— forest use regulations require loggers to maintain a 50-foot setback near fish-bearing streams—but the cedars on the bluff would’ve been felled for utility poles or decking and replaced with a plantation of fast-growing Douglas-fir cultivars. The cut was delayed at the last minute when Peter Bahls discovered an osprey nest and notified the Department of Natural Resources, which oversees logging. It’s illegal to cut forest near an active nest of a protected bird-of-prey species; the osprey discovery bought enough time for the Department of Fish and Wildlife to budget the money for the purchase.

So when we arrived, the mouth of the creek was protected and the worst of the blockades had been removed. The creek was reopened for business. Salmon could move into habitat that had been closed for more than fifty years.

Our land is about halfway between the headwaters and the mouth of the stream, and was the next project on the list. The watercourse there looked like an open wound—it was easily the most badly degraded stretch of stream in the watershed. The creek had been channelized through our property in the early 1970s. Thirty-five years later, the water was shooting through a steep-sided, arrow-straight ditch, excavating the bottom as it went. In the worst sections we could stand on the gravel streambed and not see out. The creek was 6 feet under. It was a sluiceway conveying sediment that would slowly choke the life out of Tarboo Bay.


Among gardeners in Wisconsin and Minnesota, late January is famous for the arrival of the seed catalogs. The holidays are over; the temperature is below zero and dropping, and there is nowhere left to pile the snow that’s still falling. Something like spring seems impossible. And then, precisely then, the seed catalogs arrive.

I feel the same way about placing our tree order each fall. Something as impossible as a forest seems just a hope away.

Our place along Tarboo Creek is shaped like a triangle, bordered by a one-lane road that runs southwest to northeast and a two-lane blacktopped road on the east. Biologically, the parcel has three distinct zones: a derelict pasture of about 6 acres that makes up the triangle’s point, a 3-acre strip of floodplain on either side of the creek, and 8 to 9 acres of cutover, third-growth woodland on the bluff above the stream.

Maps showing the location and layout of the Freemans’ restoration project at Tarboo Creek. Maps designed and drawn by Susan Leopold Freeman.

In 2004 the pasture was treeless. The floodplain had a single row of alder stems on either side of the ditch, along with a tangle of willow and alder in the remnants of the old creek channel. The uplands had been stripped of trees that were larger than a hand span across. We needed to reforest the old pasture and the floodplain, and underplant in the cutover uplands. As I write, we are twelve years and more than ten thousand trees and shrubs into the process.

* * * * * * *

Sketch of a tree sapling by Susan Leopold Freeman.

Sketch of a tree sapling by Susan Leopold Freeman. Her charming illustrations can be found throughout their book Saving Tarboo Creek.

Our tree-planting season can start in November—sometimes even October. Like the arrival of the salmon, the onset of planting season depends on the rains. If the winter storms are early and heavy and the soils re-wet sufficiently after the Pacific Northwest’s late-summer drought, you can start putting trees into the ground before leaf drop is over. But if the rains are late and light, you would dull your shovel trying to dig at the bone-dry ground, then worry about the saplings’ roots drying to death before they have a chance to acclimate and grow.

But whether you start early or late, the first thing to do is decide which trees and shrubs you’re going to plant. This is actually harder than it sounds.

Traditionally, the goal of ecological restoration has been to replicate the conditions that existed when Native Americans were managing North America, before the arrival of Europeans. To do this, you go back to the original land survey records, when the government divided the country into a grid of 640-acre sections, and look at the notes the surveyors made about the vegetation on your site. In our case, Peter Bahls found references to “spruce bottom”—wet forests dominated by Sitka spruce.

The straight-grained, knot-free wood of old-growth Sitka spruce resonates so well that it is the material of choice for piano soundboards and guitar tops. Sitkas also helped persuade Bill Boeing to set up his airplane company in Seattle. In 1916, Sitka spruce was the preferred material for fuselage and wing frames; it’s still the material of choice for building experimental aircraft. And it was abundant in the Pacific Northwest—especially in the cooler, wetter forests along the coast.

Scott & Susan under a Sitka spruce

Scott and Susan at the base of a giant Sitka spruce near Tarboo Creek.

When the Salish people worked this land, before the arrival of whites, the spruce bottoms of Tarboo Creek and nearby Chimacum, Snow, and Salmon creeks were crisscrossed with beaver dams and spotted with ponds and marshes. They were wetland complexes— free-flowing streams that connected expanses of still waters ponded by beaver dams.

To supplement the information in the old land survey records, you can start walking. In our case, the destinations were stumps from old-growth trees that were felled in the 1860s and 1870s. When you find an intact stump, you’re often able to locate notches for the springboards—planks the loggers nailed into the wide butts of gigantic trees. The springboards furnished a platform to swing double-bitted axes and pull a two-man crosscut saw—a tool they called the misery whip—so the tree could be cut above the flaring base.

Walking our place, we found some scattered western redcedar stumps, still 5 feet across at the cut after 130 or more years of decay. All of them were charred from the slash fires that had burned through the Tarboo Valley, and the rest of western Washington, between the years when the old growth came down and about 1920. So we added western redcedar to the planting list.

Tree planting time at Tarboo Creek.

The Freeman family have a reunion at their Kitsap County property near Hood Canal to plant trees.

Another key destination is pockets of undisturbed vegetation. Back in the Midwest, where both Susan and I grew up and went to school, we’d walk railroad tracks to find little strips of intact prairie plant life. The railroads sometimes ran ahead of the farmers, so in a few places the tracks were laid and rights-of-way fenced before the prairies were plowed under—leaving relicts we could use as a source of seeds and information about which plants grew at which sites. At Tarboo Creek, we walk the floodplain near the mouth of the stream, just north of its junction with the estuary and salt water. The tiny bit of old growth that remains there, near the tree we call the big Sitka, includes majestic, moss-covered bigleaf maples in the canopy, sprawling thickets of shrubby vine maples in the understory, and a forest floor covered with lush sprays of sword fern.

So in thinking about the future of our place, we could create a vision of the past from relicts and stumps. But by the time we were getting our restoration work under way, the science of climate change had become a sophisticated, maturing discipline. Research at the local and global level had made it clear that temperatures and precipitation patterns in western Washington were changing rapidly and would continue to change. The forests of 1820 would not thrive in the climate of 2120.

Restoration efforts at Tarboo Creek

Restoration in progress is marked by strategically placed logs to help redirect the creek and tree tubes that protect the young plantings.

This makes things difficult. In some places on the Olympic Peninsula, western redcedars can live a thousand years. The big Sitka is at least five hundred years old, but it’s growing at what is now the southern edge of its species’ range. Do we plant trees for the past, or for the future?

Feature photo, top, of Tarboo Creek is courtesy of Peter Bahls, Northwest Watershed Institute.

Did you enjoy this article? It appeared in our Summer 2018 issue of The Leopold Outlook. Become a member and get the magazine delivered to your mailbox!