A more difficult path

To the Weisensee family of Pedee, forest stewardship just makes horse sense


As part of an educational field trip, Pedee Charter School students watch Mark Saugstad harvest logs using horse power on the Wieensee's 400-acre timber stand.

(erin byline)

PEDEE -- Jerry Weisensee moved to his uncle's Pedee farm in 1966 and three years later bought his first stand of timber land. It was a dream he had had since childhood.

When he was 12 or 13, he found a primer book on buying timber ground and turning it into profit. It was the late 1930s and the U.S. was crawling out of the Great Depression.

Even then, Weisensee had a vision for what his life would be like.

The first steps were hard. Logging isn't the easiest way to make a living in the best of times. Weisensee worked the land from sunup to sundown, mostly by himself.

"That's a no-no, but you do what you have to do to survive ... In those earlier years we sold a lot of cord wood," he said chuckling.

That's all he could sell. The land had been neglected. It needed to be nurtured into producing worthwhile timber, anf that takes time and patience.

Out of step with the mainstream management methods of 1969, Weisensee followed a local forester's suggestions on thinning the stand instead of clearcutting it. Eventually, he started seeing profit.

Throughout the next three decades he would borrow money from the bank, pay a little off, then borrow more.

Some years were tighter than others, but he had a mission: He wanted to see how profitable he could make his little timber business, while at the same time making it as environmentally stable as possible.

"We're learning. We make different mistakes -- and sometimes things work and sometimes they are a disaster, but we fix it and move on. That's part of the fun of having a tree farm, you get to experiment with different stuff."

One experiment has resulted in an unusual and life-altering logging technique.

In 1989, an employee Weisensee had hired, Angel Ayon, mentioned that while growing up he had used horses to farm his family's land in Mexico.

That year, the Weisensee family decided to try to incorporate horses into their harvest efforts.

"There's not very many people who do it, because it costs a bit more," Weisensee said.

"But we found that we enjoyed it. It's quieter, nicer, and it doesn't tear up the ground as much."

That first year, Ayon drove the horses, which were used only a few times. It was really an experiment, and they still had a business to maintain -- but it was the beginning of something.

For the next few years the horse logging experiment went to the back burner. Ayon left to work for a different company, and Weisensee didn't have a team of his own.

Then in the 1990s, Ed Weisensee, one of Jerry's sons, graduated from college and returned to the family business full-time.

He brought with him a degree in forest management and a ton of innovative ideas on sustainable harvesting.

He remembered his father's little horse logging experiment and wondered if they could sustain their profit margin while incorporating horses back into their harvests.

He started asking around and discovered that a local farrier, Mark Sougstad, actually had experience driving horses for logging operations.

The two men fell in sync and began sharing their visions for a healthy, sustainable, community-based logging operation. Ed felt that he could build on the ideals his father had established back in the 60s: Small is beautiful, the community is key, and if you take care of the trees they'll be good to you.

Simple, right?

Wrong. Nothing in Oregon that involves land use is simple. There are too many competing interests and too few founts of knowledge.

"Even today, I don't think people completely understand the value of timber," Jerry said.

Ed makes the point that too many people have lost their connection with the land. Many of the small, privately owned stands in Oregon are held by absentee owners who live out of state.

The old-time communities, whose commerce centered around logs, are relics. Even people who live among the rural reserves often fail to see how their lives are connected to the forest.

Putting all the talk about healthy trees and horse logging aside, it's the relationships that matter most to Ed and his father.

"We're not out to build an empire. We're not into that. It's about quality of life," Jerry said.

"It's truly stewardship," Sougstad added. "the definition of a steward is someone acting on someone else's behalf, and that is truly what they are doing out there. They are making a living but they are also looking at the multigenerational aspect."

Ed said that when logging becomes just an extraction business people tend to forget what's at stake. They tend to see only the short term profits and not the long term consequences.

Part of what Ed and Jerry Weisensee want to do is share their vision with their community. They want as many people in Pedee to profit from their success as possible.

That's also where the horses come in. The animals are fed, ferried, maintained, and equipped by local artisans and farmers.

The animals allow for unobtrusive thinning and a higher quality of life for their owners and handlers, and they give Ed an entry point into the community dialogue about where Oregon is headed in the next 50 years.

"It (sustainable logging) does take a long vision, and one of the things that makes that difficult is maintaining a steady ownership pattern," Ed said.

"It's quite an undertaking, but it's a good one because it opens up a whole new dialogue with the community about resources."

"Forests don't need humans, humans need forests," Sougstad said.

"And that's the balancing act. How do we get our resources without overwhelming them?"

Sougstad and the Weisensees agree that attitudes are starting to change at the grassroots level.

People are slowly starting to take a more active interest in who is profiting from their natural resources. Is it their neighbors? Out-of-state land owners? Or large logging conglomerates?

"Back in the 90s I couldn't find enough work," Sougstad said. "Now there are more people who are looking at their forests as more than elbow room and aesthetics -- they are looking at it as 'how can I manage this stand.'

"I can get more money shoeing horses than I can horse logging, but at 52 I'm more interested in what kind of nation, what kind of state, what kind of community I'm leaving my children and grandchildren. Running across people like this (Ed) has just given me hope for the future."


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