Repairing the SCOL Land
An interview with Dora DeCoursey
By Vicki Fields, SCOL
When KCC purchased the property for Ser Chö Ösel Ling (SCOL) in 2001, efforts to repair damage to the soil and forest from human impact began almost immediately. KCC has an ongoing goal to not only provide a natural setting for spiritual contemplation but also to practice mindful land stewardship of its 240 acres. On Dec. 8, 2023, Dora DeCoursey and Bill Spangle came to SCOL to plant native flowering seed in the cloisters and in front of the main retreat building. Dora and Bill were instrumental in finding and purchasing this property, and Dora spearheaded many of the planting efforts since that time. I had the opportunity to ask Dora about the history of KCC’s restoration efforts and her vision for the future.
VF: What was the health of this property when KCC bought SCOL in 2001?
DD: The land was logged in 1994. Virtually all the big pines and firs were removed at that time including along the stream banks. They put in logging roads and denuded meadows. Soil and boulders were dug up and bulldozed to build the roads and handle timber. Weeds came in on the disturbed land. There was a benefit to logging, though; the trees became less crowded, which meant more water for the trees that were left.
Since the early 20th century, the property was used for farming and cattle ranching. Streams were ditched and the big meadow drained for pastures and growing alfalfa.
VF: What was our impact on the land as we built the retreat facility?
DD: The year after we bought the property we put in a new well and wellhouse near the existing Creek House and barn. Soon after that we installed infrastructure for the retreat facility. We put in a road to the facility site and dug ditches for water, electricity, phone, our septic system, and a huge water tank. This meant using bulldozers, moving soil and rock, cutting trees, and disturbing the land where we were building.
VF: Were there efforts to help the land recover while we were building?
DD: Yes, the previous owners had been planting pine trees to improve the property after the logging. They left behind 1000 pine seedlings, so we planted those the second month we were on the land. In 2003 we secured a grant for a major Riparian Project funded by the US Department of Agriculture. This project included selecting plants and hiring contractors to plant 11,000 native trees and shrubs over 62 acres along the banks of our year-round and seasonal streams. The purpose was to improve water quality and enhance wildlife and aquatic habitat. We still receive yearly income from that grant for protecting these areas.
From 2005-2007 we thinned, pruned, and burned slash on 33 acres to reduce fire fuels near our buildings and roads using a cost-share program with the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR). We continue to renew this contract for less acreage every two years and are reimbursed for the effort.
After all our construction to build the retreat center we seeded native grasses over the disturbed areas. The grass was slow to establish, but over the years these areas have really recovered.
An important point is that part of our strategy to heal the land has been to leave it alone, letting it restore naturally. We made hiking trails out of the old logging roads and left some of the logging slash to decay and return to the soil.
VF: Were there Sangha members with backgrounds in ecology who created a plan for forest recovery?
DD: Early on we formed a committee to plan and carry out land stewardship activities and maintain the Stewardship Plan needed to secure government grants. Several of us had backgrounds in environmental science. Our goals were to restore the land after the previous logging and our construction, to enhance retreatant access to the land, and to learn about and respond to environmental management issues. One key activity was establishing miles of walking trails, both around the land and within the two cloisters.
VF: How would you rate the health of our land and forest now?
DD: Quite good. There has been improvement from 23 more years of tree growth and revegetation since the past logging. We are still working on disturbed areas near the main buildings by planting and seeding native plants. We have weed problems but not too severe. We have noticed increased numbers of endangered Western grey squirrels and have identified many more of their nests across the property. This, along with many other bird and wildlife sightings, is a sign that we have great wildlife habitat. We have seen and identified more wildflower species as well.
VF: What do you envision for SCOL’s environment in the future?
DD: I see SCOL maintaining its wild quality and its diverse micro-environments. I envision it as a place that dharma practitioners love to go to connect with nature and practice in a peaceful and protected space. I see it as an ecological haven for native plants and wildlife. I envision the KCC staff and sangha having increased understanding of how to skillfully steward this land. I look forward to the evolution of the big meadow to bring the water flow and vegetation to a more natural state. I envision full restoration of the cloister areas supported by clearly developed paths and parking areas that help us protect this fragile environment.
VF: How can Sangha members help in this effort as shared property owners?
DD: By coming out here, connecting, and learning about this special environment and how to care for it. We have ongoing work removing invasive species, restoring native plants, and maintaining trails as well as many retreat opportunities. Come and see!
Dora DeCoursey has been a member of KCC since 1980 and was a longtime member of SCOL’s Land Stewardship Committee. Dora’s background is as a geographer for the US Forest Service.
Vicki Fields has been a caretaker at SCOL since November 2022.