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Oregon tree farmers invest in the majestic redwood

EUGENE — Imagine the Coast Range around Noti and Veneta becoming the land of the giant coastal redwood — the tallest tree on earth, the one you can drive your car through.

Some tree farmers are doing more than imagining. They're planting at least 20,000 coastal redwood trees a year in Lane and Douglas counties, according to the Cottage Grove seedling grower Plum Creek.

They're driven less by fancy, or the awe the big trees inspire in many people, than by what they see as the best return on their investment in 30 or 40 years, when the trees are harvested.

Coastal redwoods put on volume three or four times as fast as Douglas fir, said Doug Wolf, a Douglas County forester. They can produce a "phenomenal" 5,000 board feet per acre per year. Plant them in blackberries, they shoot up through the fir-killing shade. Cut one down, and the stump will sprout a half dozen new trees. Let a deer or elk eat the tender tops, it can still grow up to 350 feet tall.

"They are quite the rejuvenator," forester Dick Rohl said. "If you got any mass there, they'll just take off like the dickens."

"Like a weed practically," Wolf added.

But the most compelling fact for those tree farmers planting coastal redwoods this year: Redwood logs are selling for $800 to $1,300 per thousand board feet compared with less than $250 for Douglas fir, according to Random Lengths, a wood products trade publication based in Eugene.

The Lane and Douglas tree farmers planting coastal redwoods are betting that time will only widen that price gap.

"That's one thing about a tree farmer," Wolf said. "He's really got to have faith because the market is a long way down the road and you don't know what the conditions are going to be. You just have to have a belief."

So, where do Lane and Douglas farmers come by the faith that planting coastal redwoods won't be a waste of their money, acreage and time?

The singular answer is a CalTech-trained rocket scientist who turned his energies and intellect over the past 30 years to the problem of growing trees with maximum speed and profitability.

George Fenn, who died Oct. 15 at age 85, gave up work on the first intercontinental missile for the U.S. government to farm 461 acres near Elkton, a tiny town about 50 miles southwest of Eugene.

The iconoclastic tree farmer pioneered techniques for growing exceptionally dense fir crops and harvesting on a short 25-year schedule, saying the additional harvests squeezed into a 100-year time frame would more than make up for cutting smaller trees.

"He took forestry to a more detailed, scientific approach," said Wolf, who was Fenn's forester for 28 years. "He looked at tree physiology hard to determine what was best for the tree. From that he would figure out what was best for the whole stand."

He studied combining tree species to optimize productivity, stocking his forests with western red cedar, western larch and Willamette Valley ponderosa pine — in addition to the Douglas firs — and he went further than anyone down that road.

"We got Siberian larch, and every one of them died because they couldn't tell whether it was day or night or summer or winter," said Art Skach, who served as Fenn's tree planter since 1990. "He tried all these different eucalyptus, and they'd do great for five years and then we had a freeze that killed every single one, and then he planted something else."

Fenn built 50-column spreadsheets with cells containing foot-long formulas to plot and predict tree growth. He advised timber companies. And he once did background research for a timber-related U.S. Supreme Court case. "That guy was as smart as anyone you would know," Wolf said. "I've known some smart people. But that guy was just off the chart."

Fenn started planting coastal redwoods near Elkton 16 years ago. Every year he planted more; now, about 10,000 are up and growing.

The oldest are 30 feet tall and about a foot in diameter at chest height. They're "right up with the Doug fir; they're overshadowing the grand fir; the pine is a laggard," Rohl said.

Still, Fenn's methods are uncomfortably far down the theoretical road for many — if not most — silviculturalists.

"Foresters make farmers look progressive. They don't like change," Rohl said. "That's the beauty of George right there. He came in with a clean slate. He didn't have any preconceived ideas about forestry and the way it should be done."

In Eugene, tree specialist Dennis "Whitey" Lueck said he wouldn't recommend planting coastal redwoods around here, although they'll definitely grow. The trouble, he said, is that coastal redwoods don't tolerate cold.

Lueck had a 10-foot-in-diameter, double-trunked redwood tree in his front yard until recently, when he had it felled after deciding he couldn't risk it toppling on his neighbor's property.

Examining the rings, he could clearly see evidence of a minus-12 freeze in Eugene in 1972. Redwood trees all over town that winter lost all of their foliage and looked dead, he said.

"But redwoods are exceptional conifers. They can sprout new foliage, and they did," Lueck said.

"It's not impossible there will be another cold snap like that," he said. "And they may recover, but there's a reason why their natural northern range is the Chetco River down by Brookings."

On the other hand, Lueck has noticed tiny coastal redwood trees scattered around his neighborhood from the tree he removed.

Despite the risk that the redwoods could freeze and die — after years of investment — Fenn convinced local tree farmers to give them a try.

His theory was that, in the future, consumers and regulators will shun the wood-preserving chemicals now used to make lumber last outdoors. The EPA already has banned the commonly used chromated copper arsenate for residential use. Coastal redwoods contain polyphenols that make the tree's lumber resistant to outdoor weather, insects and decay. Western red cedar is similar, but deer eat it like candy, making it trickier to grow.

Also, some growers theorize that the warming climate in the Northwest would make Lane and Douglas counties more hospitable to California species such as the coastal redwood — although global warming is too political for Fenn's acolytes to even address. "You talk climate change, and we all look at our feet," Skach said.

Blaine Werner, a Eugene financial services expert and amateur tree farmer, is planting 17,000 redwoods this coming December on 60 acres he owns between Noti and Veneta. Werner is planting more redwoods than other farmers in Fenn's circle, although he's hedging his bets by planting them in a mixture of Douglas and grand fir in accordance with a plan that Fenn wrote last year. On strict financials, the redwoods are a decent proposition, Werner said. He expects his investment to gain value at 8 percent to 10 percent a year.

"George was cutting edge," he said. "He was prophetical about what was going to happen."