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Kitsap man speaks for the trees - Jim Trainer, a tree historian, tells local history through the trees in our backyards.

Jim Trainer points out a “culturally modified” cedar tree in Illahee State Park. Part of the trunk was stripped by Native Americans to make a plank and the base was hollowed to cook clams. - Lynsi Burton/file photo
Jim Trainer points out a “culturally modified” cedar tree in Illahee State Park. Part of the trunk was stripped by Native Americans to make a plank and the base was hollowed to cook clams.
— image credit: Lynsi Burton/file photo

Jim Trainer can read a different chapter of Kitsap county history and culture with each ancient tree he spots.

“To me, every tree tells a story,” he said, driving through East Bremerton in his pickup truck Monday.

From homestead trees transplanted from the Midwest to 1,000-year-old cedars hollowed by Suquamish Native Americans, Trainer has cataloged Kitsap heritage trees – trees with any sort of historical significance – for more than 15 years. As someone who propogates trees and restores wildlife habitat, he has tried to start a protection program for Kitsap’s heritage trees, with no luck. Meanwhile, he educates the public on historic trees and hosts forest hikes, reciting the stories found in Kitsap’s trees.

Trainer, a certified arbor-ist, is scheduled to host a presentation Jan. 22 about the area’s heritage trees, based on his book, “Kitsap Trees,” compiling photos and histories of the 10 trees he finds most interesting. The book sale and presentation will be at 2 p.m. at the Silverdale Library and 50 percent of book proceeds will go to the library.

One of the trees in the book is a pacific yew, found in Illahee State Park. At about 400 years old and 50 feet tall, this pacific yew still has visibly broken branches, where Native Americans pulled them to fashion into bows, arrows, utensils and paddles. The bark was used as an anti-cancer drug.

Pacific yews were Native Americans’ “No. 2 tree,” Trainer said, topped only by cedars, which were used to make canoes, clothing and longhouses, among several other items. One cedar, found in the middle of a median in a road cutting through Illahee State Park, has a tall, narrow, vertical portion removed from the trunk, which was used as a plank. The base of the tree is hollowed and burned, where Native Americans cooked clams.

Other trees throughout the park offer insight into Kitsap history. Near the entrance, a cedar with curved, U-shaped limbs, was known as a “cathedral tree,” and trees like it were worshipped by Native Americans. Yards away is a Swedish whitebeam, which Swedish immigrants planted on their homestead when white settlers came to Illahee.

Nonnative trees in the county often indicate where immigrants and settlers came from before they moved to the Pacific Northwest and where they built their farms and homesteads. One day, as Trainer explored the forest near Little Beef Creek in Silverdale, he found daffodils and a black walnut tree – a tree species abundant in the Midwest – and a nearby swale, used as a dump by the settlers, still contained old bottles.

“Every tree’s got a story,” Trainer repeated.

CITY BOY IN THE FOREST

Trainer grew up in Philadelphia, surrounded by pavement, in the neighborhood depicted in the “Rocky” movies, he said.

“I used to have to walk eight blocks to see a tree,” he said.

He moved to Kitsap County, where his wife’s family is from, 34 years ago and studied horticulture and forestry at Olympic College.

Now, the former city boy can pick out trees along his path of travel and recite how old they are and where they came from, and he knows the location of every eagle nest the the county.

“I’m in the woods a lot,” he said. “I kind of have a knack for finding a lot of different things in the forest.”

About six years ago, Trainer left his job as a Puget Sound Energy community forester to start Treez, Inc., which conducts wildlife restoration projects, hazardous tree evaluations, habitat enhancement, tree health diagnoses and public classes and lectures. He collects surplus trees from businesses like Hood Canal Nursery and Weyerhauser – trees that would otherwise have been burned – and has used them to open nurseries throughout the state, from Bellingham to Olympia and Port Townsend to Cle Elum. The trees are also used for Treez, Inc.’s habitat restoration projects and are donated to environmental groups for planting.

Trainer’s own nursery at his home on Illahee Road contains 4,000 plants, including young trees descended from heritage trees. Those historic trees include cedars descended from a 1,000-year-old tree on the Quinault Indian Reservation and a “Lewis and Clark cottonwood” taken from a tree explorers Merriwether Lewis and William Clark reportedly slept under along the Lewis and Clark trail.

In Trainer’s garage are cross-sections cut from trees, an eagle’s nest, animal droppings and other wildlife artifacts he uses when he gives presentations at local schools.

“He has enough stories and enough of a background to make it really exciting for kids to understand the importance of wildlife,” said Olaf Ribeiro, owner of Ribeiro Tree Evaluations, Inc. based on Bainbridge Island. “He’s a one-man show, which I think is really amazing.”

Down the road from Trainer’s house is the LaMotte-Schutt homestead, where Henry LaMotte, chief surgeon in former president Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, settled in 1900. There, he planted a purple beech tree, still standing at 100 feet tall and more than 100 years old next month.

Just up Illahee Creek, which meanders alongside the property, is where Trainer will plant 1,500 cedar trees in his next restoration project.

THE TREES’ ADVOCATE

Because Kitsap County has no program to help protect the heritage trees — except for Bainbridge Island, which has its own program — any of the historic trees can be at risk of being felled if a developer or property owner chooses to clear it.

“I can’t stop it,” Trainer said.

He cited two in Silverdale that were cut in July 2007. One was an old willow behind the Bucklin Hill Road Safeway that was cut down when the area was commercially developed. The other was a poplar on the Silverdale Waterfront Park, planted about 100 years ago. It was misdiagnosed by the county as a dying tree and was taken down.

Trainer said he developed a heritage tree preservation program 10 to 15 years ago and tried to persuade the county government to adopt it, but was unsuccessful.

“He hasn’t given up over the years despite the hurdles,” Ribeiro said. “He’s not afraid to go all on his own and take a stand.”

Bainbridge Island, the only local government in the county that protects heritage trees, modeled its program after Seattle’s, Ribeiro said. It collects nominations for unique trees and awards certificates to qualifying trees once a year.

It can’t legally prevent a tree from being cut down, Ribeiro said, but typically the official recognition of a heritage tree allows landowners and their neighbors to understand the significance of a tree and want to keep it alive.

“Hopefully one of these days, Kitsap County will a have that recognition,” he said.

Nonetheless, Trainer said that losing a healthy heritage tree is fairly rare. Property owners usually want to preserve a historically significant tree if it poses no danger to neighbors.

However, there are still other trees that Trainer wants the bring to the public’s attention. He used to give tours of the 100-year-old sycamore and white poplar trees on Captain’s Row at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, which he said gives the area the look of an old New England town, but public access has been prohibited since Sept. 11, 2001. Trainer said there has been talk of trying to restart the Captain’s Row tours, but he didn’t think it would happen soon.

‘NO ONE WOULD HAVE DONE IT’

Kol Medina, executive director of the West Sound Wildlife Shelter in Bainbridge Island, said Trainer is a selfless man who has helped give Kitsap County its sense of history.

Trainer donates trees to the West Sound Wildlife Shelter for its annual fundraising auction, including trees descended from heritage trees that are sold for up to $500.

“Jim is a true county treasure,” he said. “What he’s done in cataloging heritage trees and bringing attention to heritage trees and the role of trees in our cultural life is phenomenal.”

Trainer maintains those history links in what ways he can. At his home nursery, he is raising a poplar tree taken from one of the old poplars planted by C.E. Greaves - the “Johnny Appleseed of Kitsap County,” as Trainer called him - who is also said to have planted the heritage tree recently felled at the Silverdale Waterfront Park in the early 1900s.

Lawrence Greaves, C.E. Greaves’ great-grandson, who lives in Silverdale, said C.E. Greaves planted lombardi poplars along the lane of the family farm, where the Kitsap Mall is now located. They were given to him by another Silverdale resident, Nels Thusen, who in 1908 brought them from the island of Elba, one of the islands where Napoleon was exiled. Napoleon was said to have planted the poplars on the island to remind him of home.

When reflecting on why his work with trees is so important, Trainer said he just likes it.

“I just had a passion for trees and critters,” he said.

But Medina said that without Trainer’s work, a piece of Kitsap’s history might have gotten lost over time.

“If he hadn’t been doing this, no one would have done it,” he said.

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