For the Deumling Family, Land Use Is a Way of Life

Sun, 12/16/2018 - 9:00am

As an Oregonian, I am so grateful for this time of year, when we wrap ourselves in scarves and sweaters, and gather around the hearth with loved ones. With the last leaves fallen, and the first snows laying thick across the Cascades, I am reminded once again of the incredible beauty and bounty of our beloved state, and especially of the connections between Oregon's forests and families like yours and mine.

It's not just that our forests cover nearly half the state (though at 30 million acres, they do), and it's not just that Oregon produces more of the nation's Christmas trees than any other state (though at 5.2 million trees a year, it does). As Executive Director of 1000 Friends of Oregon, I experience it every day: stories of the unique and indelible relationship between land and livelihood, people and place, Oregon and Oregonians, that exists here like nowhere else. These stories are the result of the system of thoughtful and responsible land use established by Governor Tom McCall and Senate Bill 100 in 1973, and carried forward by 1000 Friends of Oregon ever since.

This holiday season, I want to share just one of these Oregon stories with you, from the Eola Hills near Salem.

Call it “forest to floor.” Call it “slow wood.” Call it “Naturgemaesse Waldwirtschaft.” (That's German for "natural forestry.") Officially, it’s called Zena Forest Products. And for 1000 Friends’ members Sarah and Ben Deumling, the mother-and-son team who own the company, it’s simply called home.

Three generations of Deumlings, and their mill family

Families like the Deumlings are why we do what we do.

Sarah Snyder Deumling grew up in Oregon, on her family’s farm in Molalla. In high school, they hosted one of the first students to participate in the new foreign exchange program—a young woman from Munich named Apollonia. The girls became lifelong friends, and Sarah eventually went to Germany. A graduation party there led to a blind date with a young man named Dieter.

The rest, as they say, is history. Ben was born in Germany, the third of Sarah and Dieter's four children. He was 5 years old in 1987, when the Deumlings moved back to Oregon to manage Zena Timber, then owned by a German family. Ben spent kindergarten helping his father convert some of the land's trees into the house where he would grow up (and where his own family now lives). When Dieter died in 1996, the first thing Ben wanted to know was whether they would have to move.

The answer, fortunately, was no. The family could stay in the forest.

Sarah took over in her husband's stead. "I knew nothing about business, nothing about economics. But then I looked up the word. Economics means organizing resources. I'd raised four children on two continents. I knew how to organize resources!" She learned rapidly, earning the trust and respect of the forest's owners and their associates. When the company decided to sell the land, Sarah organized the resources to purchase it herself.

Things went relatively smoothly for a number of years, until Measure 37 came along in 2004, threatening land use—and the forest—like never before. Within months, 30 years of conservation by 1000 Friends, the Deumlings, and others was jeopardized. "There was encroachment everywhere, with development proposed on all sides of Zena." Sarah became an active member of Friends of Polk County, a 1000 Friends affiliate group, and she was there to help 1000 Friends lead the charge to pass Measure 49, essentially neutralizing Measure 37. The effort succeeded, and just in time. Take it from Sarah:

"We wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for 1000 Friends." The Zena Forest Products mill, still hard at work all winter long!

By the end of 2007, with the land use system restored, the Deumlings were once again able to focus on the forest, which continued to flourish. Ben returned home, officially partnering in the business—and ready to try something new.

For years, Sarah had been experimenting with small runs of hardwoods like native Oregon white oak, rather than the typical fir, “just to see if there was a market.” There was. With the help of a federal grant, Ben built a sawmill onsite, and Zena Timber became Zena Forest Products. Rather than sending trees out to be milled, they sawed the boards themselves, even bringing in timber from their neighbors. For the first time in decades, a homeowner in Eugene, Salem or Portland could opt to use Willamette Valley-grown, sustainabilty-certified hardwoods to build or remodel their own house, and could visit the forest where the wood had grown.

At 1300 acres, Zena is the largest intact parcel of its kind in the Willamette Valley, and is protected by a conservation easement. The Rickreall, Yamhill, and Spring Valley watersheds start there. As stewards of an entire ecosystem, the Deumlings use ecology to enhance forestry, and vice versa. Sarah and Ben regularly host groups from around the world, sharing their methods—no clear-cuts, herbicides, or compaction—with industry insiders, government officials,and students of all ages. Their approach costs more and takes longer, but for the Deumlings and their customers, it’s worth it. Demand for Zena Forest Products continues to rise.

There are challenges, to be sure. As foresters, the decisions the Deumlings make today will be with them for decades, a reality made tougher thanks to the unpredictable effects of climate change, which they are already seeing in their forest. The land use system that sustains them is strong, but not impervious. For Sarah and Ben, there's peace of mind in knowing that whenever irresponsible land use threatens Zena Forest, 1000 Friends will always be there to help.

Now, a third generation of Deumlings is putting down roots under some of the same old oaks where Dieter taught 5-year-old Ben how to take a hammer and nails and turn a forest into a home. With his own legacy becoming clearer, Ben continues to look for ways to fully integrate the family business, wasting as little of the forest as possible. This fall, while holding a "Biggest Apple & Acorn" contest with his wife and kids, Ben realized that for all that he's learned to do with oaks, he's never learned to use their acorns as food. So, he's added that to his list of upcoming projects!

3 generations. 30 years. 30,000 trees planted by Sarah herself. If you ask Sarah Deumling what she loves most about her family’s forest today, her eyes will sparkle, the room will light up with her smile, and she’ll whisper reverently, "Everything."

One of the fun parts of managing a forest is growing your own Christmas tree!Let's make sure future generations share Sarah’s reverence.

As you prepare for the holidays, whether by kindling logs to warm your home, adorning a tree with cherished ornaments, or venturing into the woods on skis and snowshoes, take a few moments to marvel at your own forest connections. Take a moment to think of families like the Deumlings, who strive to make the forest's abundance available to us all. Take a moment to honor Tom McCall and all the people who made responsible land use a reality for Oregon. Take a moment to remember that this is your story, too.

You can join Sarah, Ben, and all the families who keep Oregon’s story strong by making a gift to 1000 Friends this holiday season!

Wishing you and your family all the best now and throughout 2019,

Russ Hoeflich, Executive Director

Russ Hoeflich
Executive Director


1000 Friends of Oregon is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Our EIN in 93-0642086.
Donations are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law.