Story Walk: the persisting Illahee Preserve

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Photo by Steve Fisher.

The most important thing about the Illahee Preserve in Mike Taylor’s mind? “Simply that it persists,” he said.

Passersby of the more than 500-acre forest off Highway 303 might assume its enduring legacy is secured. Not so. For much of Taylor’s life, he’s watched the land be logged, used as a garbage dump and as a haven for off-roading vehicles.

The 500-year-old tree.

Today, that forest has largely been cleaned up and returned to its pristine past. Its location in one of the densest areas of Kitsap County makes such forestland invaluable, say the stewards who help maintain it. Some, including Bremerton Mayor Patty Lent, see it as a kind of Central Park for Bremerton as the city grows to encompass it in the coming years.

About 110 of you ventured to the woods of Illahee Saturday for the Kitsap Sun’s latest Story Walk. That includes Taylor, who has lived nearby for most of his life. It includes Jim Aho, a forest steward whose involvement in all things Illahee has given rise to his nickname as its mayor. And finally, it includes Vic Ulsh, who has headed East Bremerton Rotary’s involvement in keeping up the forest since that organization adopted the woods as a major project in 2005.

But as I mentioned, it did not have to be this way. In the early 1700s, a fire burned down most of the woods there, giving rise to some more diverse conifers including white pines and Western Hemlocks (to go with the Douglas Fir, Western Red Cedars and Madrona we all know and love). It was logged at least twice since. It became federal trust land before it was turned over to the state’s Department of Natural Resources.

On at least three occasions, it could have been sold for development but neighbors fought back, according to Ulsh. Kitsap County took it over in 1999. Aho, Ulsh and others have been maintaining it since.

But they’re not stopping at its current boundaries. Last year, a successful effort to purchase what became known as “The Lost Continent,” brought in another 25 acres. The stewards hope to extend the preserve all the way to Illahee State Park one day, to create a wildlife corridor and a stream — Illahee Creek — that can remain in its natural state.

Already, the forest is home to some treasures of nature, including this 500-year-old tree that got its share of hugs Saturday afternoon.

Photo by Steve Fisher.
Photo by Steve Fisher.

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