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European Sustainability in Oregon

Zena Timber's forestry practices are both economical and environmental

By Bob Bruce

European foresters have a head start on their North American counterparts when it comes to sustainable forestry practices, low-impact harvesting technology, and the benefits of selective thinning and mixed-species timber stands.

It's not because they are better or smarter than us. Instead it has more to do with things like population density, geography, and practicality. Their forests have had to support the growth and industry of large numbers of people, packed into a relatively small space, for a good 800 years longer than the forests of the New World. As a result, they have had to develop the methods and tools that would help them make the most of what they have.

After her husband passed away 1996, leaving her with two young sons, Sara created a niche for herself and her family with Zena Timber.

If there's one person who knows and appreciates the "European" model of sustainable forest management, it would be Sarah Deumling, owner of Zena Timber outside of Salem, Oregon. She has been practicing sustainable forestry on her 1400+ acres of multi-aged, mixed species forest for close to 20 years now, and according to her, it is both environmentally and economically viable.

Four Hundred Years of Management

Sarah is originally from Oregon, but for a number of years, she lived in Germany where her husband helped manage the vast forest holdings of one Count Hermann Hatzfeld. In addition to being one of the great hereditary landowners in Germany, Hatzfeld is also Chairman of the German Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Working Group and member of the German government's Council for Sustainable Development.

Count Hatzfeld's family has managed the same 10,000 acres of forest for something like 450 years, which not surprisingly, gave them a long-term perspective on timber management.

Moving to the U.S.

In the early 1980s, Sarah was living in Germany with her husband, who was working for Hatzfeld. It was a good life, but Sarah is a native Oregonian and really wanted to move back to the States to be with her family. As it happened, that was the time when acid rain was becoming a big threat to the European forests.

"My husband convinced them that the healthiest forests in the northern hemisphere were in Oregon, and they went for it. We came back to Oregon on a summer vacation, and he found the first 400-acre parcel. We added to that a couple of times until, in 1987, it was a big enough chunk for us to say "We'll go back to Oregon and manage it for you."

They eventually accumulated enough parcels to make a total of 2,000 acres. "They were in every state of disrepair," she recalls. "Some were planted, a lot had been hydrated. Some had been agricultural land and growing back. So for probably the first 15 years, it was really a restoration project."

The Germans were okay with it being a restoration project instead of a profit-turning tree farm as long as it didn't cost them anything. That took a lot of pressure off the Deumlings; they could thin enough marketable timber to cover expenses yet not have to over-harvest and thus further degrade the property.

From Mom to Forester

Everything changed in 1996 when her husband passed away, leaving her with some difficult choices.

"In the beginning, I didn't know anything about managing the forest because my husband had been the forester, and I had been the mother and housewife and vegetable gardener," she says.

She could have walked away except for two very important considerations. "I had two little boys still at home," she says. "I have four children, and the two youngest, who were 12 and 14 at the time, still lived at home. Literally the first thing they said to me after they learned that their father was dying, was 'Mommy, we don't have to move, do we?'"

She also had limited job opportunities to choose from. She had been a high school social studies teacher in a "former life," but by this point she says, "I was old enough that I didn't speak the same language as the students I was teaching. Somehow the trees just seemed so much nicer than the kids."

On the other hand, she admits she faced something of a language barrier first getting into the timber industry as well.

"I would have a log buyer or a logger out here, and I was so embarrassed because I didn't know what they were saying to me. Somewhere along the line, I decided to start asking questions when I didn't understand what they were saying. And I found out that they are a whole bunch of very nice guys who just loved to talk about what they knew. That was the turning point for me, when I realized I could get a whole education by asking questions."

Learning to Thin

When her husband passed away, the farm was a good year behind in their thinning schedule. She knew that the first most important person she needed to bring on board was a good faller -- someone with a lot of finesse, someone able to drop a tree almost exactly on target to minimize damage to surrounding trees and not harm regeneration.

The criteria she follows to manage her forest for both sustainability and profitability is simple in concept.

"I take defects first. That's my first criteria," she says. "My second criteria is to take the biggest competitor of the crop tree. As the stand continues to mature, we are growing not for quantity but quality. I am always giving the best trees a better chance."

Mirror of the Forest

Sarah firmly believes that the closer a forest management program mimics the natural processes of the forest, the better the result will be. "The less we disrupt the natural processes of how it regenerates itself, how the moisture business works, the nutrition and all that, the healthier forest you're going to have, and the best hedge we have against whatever is down the road for us."

One of the biggest benefits to Sarah's approach is the low incidence of insect and disease damage, particularly in the mixed-species stands.

"Windthrow is an issue in the plantation," she says, "but not where we have maples and oaks and firs growing together of different ages. My sense is that working as closely as possible with nature has already given us a lot of advantages. And it gives us regeneration. The biggest monkey wrench in the whole plan is the invasive species."

She acknowledges that it is a more labor-intensive approach, "But that's good because it makes more jobs. I've got guys working out here that don't have jobs because there's no logging to do, and I'm paying them to do stuff that Weyerhaeuser would say, 'Well, we can't afford to do it.'"

Getting into the Business

Actually, Sarah admits, it could be difficult to transfer what she is doing to other small woodlot owners. "There's an increasing and lively market for local products, and that market hasn't crashed to the extent that the rest of the housing market has. In other areas it's harder because the transportation distances are longer."

Sarah recommends that each timber owner would have to look closely at their own situation and consider options such as pooling resources with other timber owners in their area to group market product and save on transportation costs.

"The jury's still out, to me at least, on how many acres you need to have. We have a friend in Wisconsin -- he's married but it's still a one-man operation -- with 200 acres of hardwood. His forest is scruffy compared to our forest, because the trees don't grow as fast up there. But he has a mill, and he makes flooring and countertops. He does the whole thing. He installs the flooring. He's vertically integrated. He says 200 acres is more than he can keep up with, and he makes a good living."

Sarah believes it's a model to consider and also one that lets people know that it can be done.


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