Thursday, June 28, 2018

Five Days at MC Ranch

Date of Visit: June 18 - 25, 2018
Type of Event: Study Tour
Topic: Forest Practices in Eastern Oregon
Organizations: Merlo Corporation, Oregon Department of Forestry, Oregon State University, Boise Cascade
Location: La Grande, Oregon
Hosts: Rex Christiansen / MC Ranch Manager, Jana Peterson / ODF Stewardship Forester, Francisca Belart / OSU Extension Harvesting Specialist, Tony McKague / Boise Cascade Log Buyer, Kaden Titus / Boise Cascade Log Buyer
International Fellows: Jeen Bunnik (Netherlands), Meei-ru Jeng (Taiwan), Xuejiao Li (China), Thammarat Mettanurak (Thailand), Tuan Manh Phan (Vietnam)
WFI Staff: Rick Zenn / Senior Fellow, Vivian Bui / Professional Programs Coordinator

(Left to right) Front: Xuejiao Li, Cathy Christiansen, Vivian Bui, Meei-ru Jeng, Rex Christiansen
Back: Kyle Porter, Thammarat Mettanurak, Heather Hoeft, Jeen Bunnik, Tuan Phan

The World Forest Institute International (WFI) Fellows have recently returned from an action-packed, five-day adventure at the Merlo Corporation (MC) Ranch located just southwest of La Grande in northeast Oregon. Each year, WFI Fellows are invited to MC Ranch to learn about forestry issues and practices on the "dry side" of the state (i.e. east of the Cascade Range). Rex Christiansen (MC ranch manager) and his family, staff, and associates welcomed us with open arms and made us feel at home during our stay. Read below for a summary of our grand ol' time in La Grande:

Rex Christiansen grew up on a ranch in Pilot Rock, south of Pendleton. Out of eight siblings, he is the only one working in the timber industry. He has been a ranch manager for over 30 years and during his first year working at MC Ranch, Harry A. Merlo (the ranch's late owner) turned over timber management to him. Rex is a firm believer in the "school of hard knocks" or "learning by doing." As he says, "I don't manage land, I manage resources. Managing for resources helps to avoid issues down the road."

At the log deck
Rex taught us about forestry practices at MC Ranch. The ranch harvests approximately 1 to 1.5 million board feet over 8,000 acres of timberland annually. No clearcutting occurs at MC Ranch, only selective harvest. In fact, when harvest time comes, Rex prefers to not hire high-production loggers, as he is concerned with looking at post-harvest natural regeneration. Additionally, no tree marking or aerial spraying of herbicides takes place on the ranch. Only pine species are planted here, with larch and fir regeneration occurring naturally. Multispecies forests are maintained to increase resilience against pests and disease. Tree stands are regularly thinned to increase long-term growth rate. MC Ranch produces timber for multiple sorts of pine logs, fir logs, firewood, pulp, and biomass (which is sold to nearby Eastern Oregon University for heating).

Improvements in forestry practice are continuously made at MC Ranch. For example, seedling survival was low (~30%) one year. It was a WFI Fellow who discovered that the seedlings had been poorly planted, with seedling roots having been cut too short or planted too shallowly. This discovery was taken into account the following year, resulting in a 90% seedling survival rate. Another highly successful improvement on the ranch has been the purchase of a mulcher to process brush piles and to grind up post-harvest stumps. The resulting mulch reduces soil erosion and the spreading of weeds and increases soil moisture retention and nutrient content, thereby reducing the need for herbicides and eliminating the need for fertilizer. MC Ranch was the first ranch in Oregon to own this type of equipment.

Enjoying Anthony Lakes
When asked about wildlife conservation efforts at MC Ranch, Rex states that sustained active management is necessary because the landscape is past the point of maintaining its "natural" state on its own. A 20'-wide buffer zone is maintained on both sides of fish-bearing streams to minimize sediment runoff during logging. Additionally, logging operations are restricted around sensitive wildlife areas, such as those used for elk calving, deer fawning, and sage-grouse breeding. Logging is also limited on steep slopes due to the rough terrain, leaving these areas for wildlife. Only very selective logging is allowed in wetland habitat. In areas where logging does occur, there have been times when harvested logs have been brought back post-harvest to serve as wildlife habitat. One out of ten slash piles formed as by-products of logging operations are also left behind for wildlife. Much of the fencing on the ranch allows for wildlife movement, meaning it is constructed at a height of 18 - 40", which allows for deer and elk young to crawl under the fence while adult animals are able to jump over. MC Ranch welcomes the elk herds, as their presence provides a prey base for predators, such as mountain lions and wolves, and thus distracts the predators from preying on cattle. Likewise, in March and April, Rex and his staff provide supplemental food sources for elk and other wildlife so as to distract them from browsing on newly planted tree seedlings.

Over the week, we also had the opportunity to speak to professionals from Boise Cascade, Oregon Department of Forestry, and Oregon State University Extension. Each of them shared some of their expertise with us:

Things are getting a little toasty!
Boise Cascade operates multiple mills in northeast Oregon: a pine mill in Pilot Rock that employs 100 people, a smaller pine mill La Grande with a staff of 70, and a stud mill in Elgin with a crew of 130-140 people that is now being converted into a plywood plant. The company purchases approximately 100 million board feet of Northwest softwoods annually, including larch, Douglas fir, ponderosa pine, and white fir. They also create and sell particle board from sawdust shavings and glue.

Stewardship foresters from the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) provide general technical assistance to landowners to ensure that they are following the Oregon Forest Practices Act.  The department provides cost-share programs to assist landowners in reducing the fuel load on their properties, an increasingly important endeavor as housing development continues upslope towards the Elkhorn mountains. In this region, ODF is engaged with the U.S. Forest Service and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in a cooperative effort known as the East Face of Elkhorns Project, whereby the three agencies work together to enact a Cohesive Wildfire Strategy that will make communities fire-resistant across private and public lands. Over two and a half years, the project has successfully applied the Cohesive Wildfire Strategy across 5,600 acres, with 900 acres remaining.

The overall purpose of the Oregon State University (OSU) Extension Service is to educate the public, mainly small woodland owners, on forest practices through outreach efforts, including various workshops and courses. The goal is to make forest practice policies easy for landowners to understand. Through OSU Extension, private landowners can receive expert advise on topics such as harvesting, road management, and watershed management.

On the last day of our stay, Rex left us with some parting lessons that he's learned over the years. "Live life. Respect the land. Respect people. The world is smaller than we think."

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