The upcoming Mennonite Men Eco-excursion will visit and work in the Zena forest in June, 2022. Details about the trip can be found at mennomen.live/oregon.
The story of the Zena forest began in 1984 with the purchase of 400 acres of forestland in Oregon's Willamette Valley by the German forest owning family for whom my husband Dieter worked. Two years later several hundred acres of adjoining forest land were purchased and in 1987 our family moved back to Oregon, where I had grown up on a family farm, to manage the forestland. We built a house on the edge of the forest which Dieter managed while I managed four children, household, garden, sheep and goats, etc.
In 1996 Dieter died of cancer and the German owners asked if I would take over the forest management. My other option would have been to go back to teaching high school. Though I had no forestry training the choice was clear - trees don't talk back and I preferred outdoor to indoor work. I accepted on the condition that they train me which they did with German thoroughness.
I had my moments of anxiety and doubt as a woman in a largely man's world which faded quickly when, at some point, I realized that instead of hiding my ignorance I could ASK QUESTIONS. Those loggers and log buyers who spoke another language were only too happy to answer my questions and tell me stories about their work and world.
Over the years the forest increased in size through the purchase of nearby parcels until it's zenith of well over 2000 acres. I had grown happily into my job when, in the mid 2000s the Germans decided to sell the Zena Forest which we had come to love and consider home. My first move was to buy 2 lottery tickets, my first and only, to see if God wanted this forest to be ours. It didn't work. The following two years are a long and complicated story but with angels on my shoulders we won another sort of lottery and since 2008 we have been the owners and stewards of 1300 acres of the forest.
From the beginning of this story the Zena Forest has been managed in a sort of "Third Way" based on the German "Natuergemaesse Waldwirtschaft" which roughly translates as "Near to Nature Forestry". Our goal is to disturb nature's natural processes as little as possible, to use the lightest touch possible while recognizing that harvesting some trees carefully can improve the quality and health of the forest ecosystem. Our forest management is an anomaly in Oregon where the industrial clear cut is king, driving our markets, mill capacity and infrastructure. The other end of this spectrum are the environmental groups, with whom we have much sympathy, who often want to cut no trees at all. We have always walked a tightrope between the two.
The primary differences between Zena management and standard industrial management are:
- Valuing all naturally occurring tree species, not just Douglas Fir, and therefore planting a mixture of seedlings most suited to a particular site. Up until our arrival on the scene hardwood trees were considered nuisance trees to be cut and left or, at best, taken to a chip mill. This fact explains our small hardwood mill which has created a market for local hardwoods and a variety of wood products which had not been available from local sources.
- Keeping all equipment on designated, permanent skid trails to protect the soil (our capital) from compaction.
- Using an "individual tree selection" method of harvesting instead of clear cuts. This often means taking defective trees or competitors of the most vigorous trees.
- Leaving logging debris on the forest floor as organic matter rather than piling and burning it after a harvest.
- Using machetes instead of chemicals to release tree seedlings from competing vegetation.
When the industrial types visit our forest they don't challenge our management but inevitably say, "it's not scalable, it won't pencil" which we have, as of yet, been unable to disprove. The Environmental folks tend to listen appreciatively and seem enthusiastically grateful that there might be another way beside the clearcuts.
A recent essay by a thoughtful farmer in Scotland was entitled "How Can I Make a Living Off My Land Without Destroying It?" Perhaps this is the central dilemma of all conscientious landowners. It certainly is our biggest concern and challenge. I'm still hoping to demonstrate that economy and ecology are one and the same - that an ecologically healthy forest is also the most economically valuable forest. For my grandchildren I want to leave a great deal of love and responsibility for all the wonders of a healthy, vibrant forest ecosystem.