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.