Far from any paved roads, Kurt Stark surveys a recently worked stand of conifers on his land. The pungent odor of upturned earth thickens the air; sunlight dapples the forest floor, littered with small branches and marred with tracks Stark made dragging felled trees out of the area.
Stark owns 264 wooded acres at the edge of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument near Pilot Rock. He’s managing his land for “saw logs” — straight, knot-free, large-diameter trees — but they won’t be harvest-ready for another 10, 15 or even 20 years.
Stark, 58, has been contemplating trees’ futures for nearly three decades. He began horse-logging in the mid-1980s and worked for local forester Marty Main, who introduced him to thinning and controlled burning. He bought his acreage in 1989 and continued learning how to restore and manage it through a combination of Oregon State University Extension courses, tips collected from old-timers and his own mistakes.
Stark points out a multiple-aged stand of white fir and incense cedar he worked three years ago. The stand is “clean” — good spacing between trees, a healthy layer of leaf litter on the ground. There’s no sign of logging tracks.
“The cedars have good leader growth,” Stark says, pointing to the tops of the conifers. He estimates his trees add 500 board feet of new growth per acre every year.
“If I can keep my harvest below that number, I’m doing the sustained-yield thing,” he says.
Over the years, he’s tackled one small area at a time, varying his approach according to slope, soil quality, exposure and species composition. By thinning crowded stands, removing the lower “ladder” limbs of bigger trees and some of the woody debris on the forest floor, Stark hopes to both encourage the growth of healthy trees and reduce the risk of fires.
“I hope that if a fire does come through, it burns hot, fast and low,” Stark says.
He removes trees according to one or more of “five Ds” — diseased, dying, dead, dense or damaged — although he does leave some snags for wildlife habitat.
“The stuff I’m taking out will never be saw logs,” he says. “Even the bigger ones have some sort of defect.” A Douglas fir with a dogleg, pines weakened by beetles and oaks infested with mistletoe all make his hit list.
He replants in some areas — starting sugar pines from seed is his current pet project — but mostly he manipulates growth by opening areas up for “reprod,” or reproduction. Young pines and cedars need sunny clearings to thrive, and even shade-tolerant species, such as white fir, can’t reach their potential if there’s too much competition for water and nutrients.
“Some people would say, ‘That’s horrible; there’s too much light!’ ” Stark says of his management strategy. “But this isn’t the coast; it’s drier and hotter.”
Stark uses a farm tractor outfitted with a winch to take down trees and move them around. He leaves plenty of smaller material on the ground, particularly pine and fir needles, which return nutrients to the soil as they break down. After limbing the felled trees, he piles the slash and burns it on site.
"I used to hand-pile," Stark says. "It was fine when I was a pup."
When he was younger, Stark logged with horses, but that practice also proved too labor-intensive. Even now, harvesting trees is a slow, painstaking process but worthwhile if Stark can minimize damage to the next generation of harvestable trees.
"It's not a high-production deal," says Stark, who works his acreage alone. "I've been told I work too hard for not enough money."
Firewood is his bread and butter. A firewood processor stands in the middle of a clearing, surrounded by raw logs and split wood. In just a few minutes, the machine can consume a whole log, chop it into rounds and split those into even chunks ready for the woodstove. Earlier this year, the processor tried to eat Stark's pinkie finger, too. He assumed he'd be back in the woods after a few stitches.
"The doc said, 'Mr. Stark, how would you like your finger — in a hot-dog bun? I'm sending you up to Portland.' "
Stark's other wood-eating machine is a portable Wood-Mizer sawmill that can handle logs up to 21 feet long and 36 inches in diameter. He sells milled lumber to individuals with particular projects in mind but estimates his production at less than 10,000 board feet per year.
"I could make the saw logs my priority, but that would be defeating my purpose."
Stark's land boasts a diversity of tree species: Douglas fir, white fir, Ponderosa pine and incense cedar, as well as hardwoods such as black oak, white oak and Pacific madrone. The topography ranges from shady, spring-fed slopes to drier, thin-soiled, natural "benches." Wildlife abounds. People are a rarer sighting, though Stark says that since the Monument's designation in 2000, closures of Bureau of Land Management roads have redirected traffic to the one dirt-and-gravel road bordering his land.
Stark is managing his land for the long term, yet with no heir apparent to take on his legacy.
"I wanted to create this habitat where people could keep on logging it," he says. He believes that without human intervention, his land — and the federal land that surrounds him — will burn. But he also believes that owners of small woodlands can play an important role in reducing that risk and restoring forests to health.
"We've had such an influence on this land," he says. "We need to clean up our room. If we don't, Mother Nature's going to do it for us."
Juliet Grable is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at email@example.com.