Butch Tanzey of Wallowa watches his son, Brandon, turning logging slash into mulch. He’s smiling.
He points to a three-foot seedling a few feet from the equipment Brandon is using.
“See that little tree?” he said. “Brandon’s going to preserve that.”
That kind of delicate work is why Tanzey and his two grown sons, Brandon and Nick, have all the timber management work they can handle.
Tanzey Forest Improvement Inc. manages land for 21 property owners in Wallowa County. The emphasis is on sustainable harvest and resource preservation.
The knowledge needed for the work comes from a lifetime of experience and a ton of education. Tanzey, 66, is an OSU Extension Service Master Forester and instructor for the Oregon Tree School program.
Tanzey says he owes a lot to Howard Johnson of Wallowa.
”When he was 92, he was still out there cutting with a chain saw,” Tanzey recalled. “I worked with him, and I manage timber the way he managed timber.”
Johnson was a rancher turned timberman. He owned 4,000 acres on Smith Mountain north of Wallowa, Tanzey recalls, and “he raised trees like he raised cattle: top of the line, state tree farmer one or two years, was up for national tree farmer. Growing trees is no different than raising sheep, cattle, horses, dogs, goats, whatever.”
That’s a particularly Wallowa County view.
Logging in Wallowa County has changed, Tanzey said. There is not a single commercial lumber mill in the county, and Tanzey trucks saleable logs to Lewiston, Idaho, and earns a fraction of what loggers earned pre-1989.
“We’ve lost the infrastructure of logging in Wallowa County,” he said.
But he doesn’t mean just the physical infrastructure of mills in the county. He means the infrastructure that supports land management of any kind — an infrastructure that supports a human community. That kind of social infrastructure depends upon generational knowledge and love for a specific place.
“That knowledge, that men who are now retired have in their minds on how to manage that land, has got to be passed on through generations,” Tanzey said. “There’s more knowledge there than we’ll be able to teach in a college or school.”
Because that knowledge is specific to the natural landscape, much of what one needs to know about managing land must be learned both on the ground and in the community.
“Doesn’t everything work hand in hand?” Tanzey asked. “It’s a strong chain: logger, rancher, business person who sells fuel or insurance or grain, works at the hospital, or what have you. You take one link out of it and it’s worthless. That’s all we are –– a link in the chain. It’s all infrastructure. We all depend on each other.”
On a recent day, Tanzey is working on the sheep ranch of Skye Krebs outside of Enterprise. Krebs own quite a bit more land, but this lot is more than 3,000 acres, of which 760 acres is timber.
Krebs uses timber money to help maintain his two-state livestock business, but he wants to preserve and improve his timberland at the same time, Tanzey said. Although Krebs runs bands of sheep on the lot, he has always sought to manage both to the benefit of the other.
Tanzey points to a large green meadow.
“See that meadow?” he asks. “That was a rock scab before Krebs ran his sheep here. Now it’s the first place the elk show up because it’s green. And all that sheep manure helps ‘my’ trees grow. If you don’t give back to the soil, it’s not going to give to you.”
Giving back is why Tanzey mulches so much of the slash left after logging and thinning. He then plants a special Wallowa County blend of grass, sweetened with a nitrogen-fixing high-altitude clover that helps the trees digest the mulch.
“My strategy on most of the lots I manage is that every 10 years I come in and do some logging and thinning on a lot –– and I’ve got the land broke up into 100-200 acre lots (in my plan),” Tanzey said. “You take an even mix of big and little trees so you have the diversity and you have red fir, larch, Ponderosa pine and different species. As you log your bigger trees the little trees come along to replace them.”
That’s a long-term strategy that is radically different than that of commercial logging operations which requires clear-cut to maximize income on timberland.
Although commercial operations are operating in line with forest practice rules and regulation and replant immediately, it will still be 70 to 80 years before the replanted stands are mature. These newly planted forests are sold.
New owners often buy with the previous owner’s profits in mind and no experience in management, Tanzey said. And new forests especially require management or they turn into a tangle of too many trees competing for limited resources. Grass growing unchecked until it’s rank and unpalatable for wildlife and creates extreme fire hazards.
“(Managed forestry) is constant maintenance,” Tanzey said. “You can’t plant a garden and not come back because the weeds are going to take over. Clear-cutting is a good management tool, and in some places it’s the only option if you’ve got a stand of timber that is all full of root rot and mistletoe and different diseases. You’ve got to go in there and remove that stand of timber and change the species for one cycle.”
But one cycle can be a long time.
“We live in a semi-desert country here,” Tanzey said. “On the coast they can clear-cut every 35 years or so. One human generation can do two clear-cuts in a lifetime –– not here.”
By logging and thinning “his forests” every 10 years, Tanzey reckons he will get two to three times the volume of wood harvest over 60 years compared to clear-cut and “you’ve never lost the original aspect, never changed the ecosystem, all the little critters that were there the day you started are still there, you’ve got good pasture, good water, wildlife ... and you’ve kept a sustainable society here: you’ve kept the mills, timber and grazing.”