By Jim Merzenich, Oak Basin Tree Farm, Brownsville, OR
Prior to European settlement frequent fires burned across Oregon’s western valleys and surrounding foothills. These fires maintained open stands of hardwoods, pine, and fir along with wet and dry prairies. After a wind or other disturbance event, fire cleared out the debris and undergrowth and provided a seed bed that enabled conifers to regenerate and thrive.
Areas that are logged and not properly reforested, or areas of untended farmland, now suffer a different fate. Non-native grasses quickly invade the site. These grasses utilize soil moisture in our dry summers and prevent conifer tree seedlings from becoming established. Exotic invaders such as English hawthorn, Himalayan blackberries, and Scotch broom then move in making these sites unproductive both to society and wildlife for decades. Our valley ecosystems are clearly out of sync and are no longer capable of restoring themselves.
Despite forest protection laws many areas previously logged remain brushed over and unproductive; other parcels are logged with no plans for management; and farmland parcels are still being neglected. To the rescue comes the tree farmer. We typically buy land that has a history of abuse because we cannot afford to buy well-managed land with merchantable saw-timber. First the area must be cleared of brush in a process called site-preparation. After planting the appropriate tree species we control grasses and weeds around seedlings until the trees are “free to grow”, hopefully within five years.
Even with our best efforts we are not always successful but learn from our mistakes. With deer browsing the leaders and meadow voles girdling the stems it’s soon time to do a pre-commercial thin. All of these activities incur costs which are not recoverable until our stands become merchantable. After 20 to 30 years we may finally have a commercial thin which provides our first “timber” related income.
Tree farmers do not purchase land with the intent to lose money. Management costs may be overwhelming, however, before you send your first load of logs to a mill. I joined the Oregon Woodland Cooperative (OWC) in search of ways to earn income while waiting for my trees to mature. This investment in OWC has paid off handsomely.
William Ingram was seven years old when he arrived in Oregon with his family in 1854. They had taken a ship from Maine to New York, then to Panama, crossed the isthmus by mule to the Pacific, boarded a ship from there to San Francisco, then another ship to Oregon City, and an ox team south to the Willamette Valley. Their Donation Land Claim, in the hills between Sodaville and Brownsville, Oregon, had only a few large conifers and a grove of oaks – the surrounding grassland was selected for their farm. The native people had burned it each year, creating an oak savanna.
A century and a half later, the giant fir where the family met Blackhawk, when he would escape from the Grand Ronde reservation, is now just a rotting stump. The other giant Douglas-fir and incense cedar trees from those days are still there, sentinels of another time. When the family quit farming this hill property, sheep from the valley were grazed here for summer pasture. Sometime in the 1930’s, as grazing decreased, young fir and cedar began to cover the hills, seeded by those giant trees. The firewood we produce for OWC was thinned from this stand, grown where William, our great grandfather, grew up. We hope you enjoy it as much as we do.
Little Beaver Creek Tree Farm began in 1956 with a purchase of 141 acres by Byron and Marguerite Doneen. Later, another 56 and 15 acres parcels were added for a total or 212 acres to become the Wildcat Unit. In 1973 another 212 acres were purchased called the Meecham Unit. The final purchase of land was in 1986 with 70 acres near Manning. This brought the total number of acres to 494. Management includes pre-commercial thinning, commercial thinning, pruning, and brush release. In 2016 we did an unusual harvest of 173 utility poles over a 36 acre area on the Wildcat Unit.
Richard and Anne Hanschu are second generation managers, The third generation is involved in the management decisions by virtue of corporate share ownership and Board of Directors positions. The fourth and fifth generation enjoys the trees by means of summer trips and help in the woods. The tree farm is certified under the American Tree Farm System (ATFS) and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).
Richard and I have created an outdoor forest laboratory with trails to various educational stations giving an insight to those outside the forestry circle as to what is involved in tree farming.
From RIdgeback Tree Farm
About 10 years ago, we purchased a small tract of 25-year old Douglas-fir from the neighbor. The stand was about 25 years old at the time and many of the trees were tall, spindly and stressed as a result of being crowded too close together. The understory was pretty barren since little light penetrated to the forest floor, It was self-mulched with needles and twigs. We knew something needed to be done to improve the health of the forest stand.
With help from the forester at our local soil and water conservation district, we made some simple measurements of the stand. He prescribed thinning the stand to reduce crowding, improve the health of the remaining trees, and encourage more plant diversity for wildlife. That summer we starting thinning our the poorest trees with the help of a fellow OWC member. All the wood harvested eventually ended up packaged in the bundled firewood that the Co-op sells. And we did a second, lighter thinning a few years later that also produced firewood for OWC.
It’s now four years after the last harvest, and we are starting to see the positive effects it had on the stand. Just in terms of biodiversity, there’s been a big increase in the number and variety of understory plants. This spring, we’re seeing seedlings of many native shrubs such as blue elderberry, snowberry, dwarf Oregon grape, vine maple, etc., plus lots of swordfern and wildflowers. All have naturally seeded-in, and will provide food and cover for wildlife. Plus the remaining Doug-fir trees are doing well now they have more room to grow.
From Ridgeback Tree Farm:
The cycle of renewal on our tree farm begins early, in February when it's still cold and wet in western Oregon. It's the time of year when we plant out tree seedlings to create new, or supplement existing, forests.
This year we bought a mix of both hardwood and conifer seedlings: Bigleaf Maple, Doug-fir, Western Hemlock, Red Alder and Incense Cedar; about 200 in all. We got good seedlings through the Washington Co. Small Woodlands Association and Brooks Tree Farm.
We're creating a new, mixed-species stand on ground formerly in Christmas trees. There are groups of conifers, including the species above plus Western red cedar and Ponderosa pine, with maple and red alder planted around the edges. The conifers will someday be harvested for timber and the hardwoods thinned to for firewood, while the diverse stand provides habitat for wildlife.