Sarah Deumling and her son, Ben, are living their dream. “I still wake up every morning pinching myself,” says Ben. “We are incredibly lucky that we get to work and live here. We are doing what we have always wanted to do, which is to take care of the forest.” The Deumlings have been managing Zena Forest, located just outside Salem, Oregon, for almost 30 years, but they weren’t always sure that this storybook life would be a reality. And for a short time, it almost wasn’t.

 An Uncertain Future

Sarah and her husband began managing Zena Forest in 1987, using sustainable forestry practices. They lived adjacent to the property, and raised three children. “This was our big backyard,” recalls Ben. “It didn’t belong to us, but we sort of felt like it did because we lived here and had taken care of it for so many years.” In 2005, the company that owned the forest wanted to sell. Since it’s located in the Willamette Valley and has a lot of areas ideal for vineyards, the Deumlings were worried it would be clear-cut for grapes, homes or farms. Ben remembers, “We realized very quickly that we might be living in a very different neighborhood if it sold to the wrong person.”

Protecting a Valuable Resource

More than 90 percent of the native oak ecosystem in the Willamette Valley is gone—the land converted to farms and homes. Ben says Zena Forest is one of the largest—perhaps the single-largest contiguous area with healthy and abundant oak trees left in the valley. And Sarah was determined to keep it that way. She made hundreds of phone calls in an effort to save the land, eventually reaching Kristin Kovalik at the Trust for Public Land (TPL). “They had the experience and partners we needed to make our dream of living and working on the forest a reality,” Sarah says. “TPL made this happen.”

With numerous federal and state partners, TPL helped sell the development rights to the property via a permanent conservation easement. And eventually, Sarah found enough capital and partners to purchase the rest of the rights, ensuring no development of Zena Forest will ever take place except the small-scale sustainable forestry that’s already being done.

Ben & Sarah Deumling in front of Zena Forest Products

Ben & Sarah Deumling in front of Zena Forest Products

Maintaining the Balance

Today, Sarah and Ben own and manage a large portion of the forested acres, under “close to nature” forestry principles. And they work constantly to ensure a healthy and balanced forest ecosystem, including a never-ending battle with invasive blackberry bushes. Ben also operates a small sawmill, where he transforms logs into high-value products, including hardwood flooring for local markets like Portland. The mill usually employs three people full time, plus contractors. Ben and Sarah are also able to pay themselves. Other times, it’s simply a labor of love.

Their property is a little more than half Douglas Fir, a conifer that foresters know a lot about managing and cutting, and the rest Oregon White Oak, a hardwood that was mostly cleared out to make way for farms. Little is known about how to sustainably manage Oregon White Oak. “We’re sort of making it up as we go along, because no one has tried to manage the Oregon White Oak for timber production,” Ben says. “It all comes down to scale. I can’t run a huge sawmill because there aren’t enough logs to sustain it for very long.”

The hardwood Ben mills—from his property and others—either comes down naturally in storms or from disease or is taken as part of a carefully planned thinning process which allows the remaining oak trees to mature into bigger, more beautiful trees.

The trees he plants won’t be ready for harvest in his lifetime; they take more than 100 years to mature. It is a model that, they hope, will spread to help preserve oaks throughout the valley. “We’re turning our hardwoods into assets instead of liabilities,” Ben says, ‘creating not only the products, but the jobs that go along with the products.”

Responsibility Across Generations

The forest means a great deal to Ben and Sarah—and to the rest of the Deumlings including Sarah’s two other children and their families. It is a home; a place to watch deer, elk, beaver, birds, bobcats and bears. A place where all three of Sarah’s children have been married. A place where Salem-area schools bring students of all ages, every year, and a family legacy that Sarah hopes her grandchildren might continue.

For Ben—a fifth-generation Oregonian—it’s a responsibility. “This forest is much larger than just me or our family,” he says. “It’s serving as a resource for all Oregonians. There are headwaters of three different watersheds that start up on this hill, a resource that I am responsible to take care of, as an Oregonian.” For Sarah, she says simply, “It’s who I am.”