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Sarah Deumling (far right) instructing students in Zena ForestSarah Deumling (far right) instructing students in Zena Forest

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Sustainable Learning

The fall air is crisp as 16 Willamette University undergraduates tumble out of the vans. They're here to see "Zena," a unique 2,000 acre sustainable forest in the Enola Hills 15 miles west of Salem.

"What's the difference between sustainable and non-sustainable forestry?" asks Sarah Deumling, the woman who's been caretaking this mixed forest of Douglas fir, maples, oaks and other native species for the past 10 years. The middle-aged Deumling, strong and lean from daily physical work in these woods, is dressed in jeans, a sweater and boots. She carries a razor-sharp, 18-inch machete.

"No clear cuts," offers one student.

The students gathered around Deumling on this autumn morning are all members of the Sustainability Seminar, a class co-taught by Karan Arabas, an associate professor of environmental science, and Joe Bowersox, an associate professor of politics. The students have learned their lessons well. They know the sustainability lingo. They can talk about the theoretical underpinnings of ecology. Today, they've come to Zena Forest see what sustainability looks like in the real world.

"It's important to bring students out here so they can see what we're talking about in class," says Arabas. "It's obvious that not all of our natural resources are renewable and many of them aren't being used in sustainable ways. It's important for students to start thinking about these issues."

Bowersox agrees. "A student can endlessly read about sustainable forest practices, but until they see it and talk to folks like Sarah who are dedicated to actually doing it, they just don't get it."

"What else is different between sustainable and nonsustainable forests?" Deumling prods the group.

"Low-impact forestry," calls out a student. "No big machines going across the land ripping out small plants and destroying the soil."

Deumling smiles and nods. "That's two of the 'c's' of non sustainable forests - clear cuts and compaction. What are the impediments to having both a sustainable yield and biodiversity on the site?"

"You probably have to be more selective in the biodiversity and ecology of the site," offers Jean-Jacque Tetu, a senior environmental science major. "You probably can't have as big a yield every season."

"Can you have both?" she challenges.

"In a perfect world," says Tetu.

It's that perfect world that Deumling and her son Rueben, a 1994 Willamette University economics/environmental science graduate, are trying to create here in the Zena Forest.

Deumling moves through the forest, sure-footed on the uneven ground, pausing briefly to whack an invasive blackberry with a single swing of her machete. She crosses a dirt logging road, leading the students into a stand of scrawny Douglas firs growing so close together that the students have to duck and dodge branches to squeeze in. It feels creepy, like entering the haunted forest in the Wizard of Oz.

"This is an industrial forest," says Deumling, pointing with her machete. "All the trees are the same height so no sunlight reaches the forest floor. Water can't soak in because the soil is hardpan. Without light and water, there's no under story to put organic matter into the soil. The soil was sprayed with chemicals during the first three years of the little Doug firs' lives, which allows the trees to survive without competition. But it doesn't bode well for future nutrients in the soil."

The students cross the skid road, moving into the dappled shade of Zena. Sixty-foot maples share the space with Douglas firs that vary in height from three to 80 feet. Here and there, dead or dying snags stand like scarecrows. Tender new maples and firs sprout up along side elderberries, chitums and other native species. Ferns, trailing blackberry, native grasses and poison oak, scarlet with the blush of fall, compete for space on the forest floor. On the edges of the stand, where there's more sunlight, oak trees thrive. It's a dizzying compendium of life; a far cry from the industrial tree farm across the road.

"What do you see on the ground?" asks Deumling.

"Litter and duff," offers Ingrid King, a senior environmental studies major.

"Hmmm, good industry words," muses Deumling. "We've got little maple trees, little firs, chitum trees, elderberry. There are middle sized trees; a mixture of species. This is pretty much what a Northwest forest that hasn't been messed with looks like."

Rueben, who looks a bit like Grizzly Adams with his shoulder-length reddish hair and full, frizzy beard, steps forward. "The timber industry would cut all this down and replant only Douglas fir and they'd use only part of the wood here."

Deumling nods in agreement. "The maple and oak would just be pulp wood or they'd burn it in piles," she says sadly. She points out a stately fir with a four-foot circumference. "They can't use this beautiful tree; it's not merchantable. Almost all the big mills in Oregon have set their mills to the smaller industrial trees on their land. And they use every crumb of their trees and sell the products in large quantities at places like Home Depot."

"Isn't it better to use the scraps rather than throwing them away?" a student from the back of the group asks.

"The wood products they're selling are bad," says Rueben with fervor. He should know. He's been restoring an 1860s house down the road that was built with tight grain Douglas fir that is as strong and beautiful as it was when it was cut more than 100 years ago. "Particle board and oriented strand board (OSB) are glued. No body knows how long the glue will hold up. If the timber industry can sell their particle board and OSB for a lot of money, there's very little incentive for them to use higher quality woods."

The quality of wood, says Rueben, is getting worse every year. "The plywood today is more warped and weighs less than plywood even 10 years ago," says the woodworker who makes all his own furniture. "A 2x4 in a lumberyard might have two or four or six growth rings to the inch. In the 1950's, that same board would have 40 or 50 growth rings to an inch."

Despite the fact that the trees Deumling and her son grow are of higher quality, they don't fetch more money than the small industrial trees grown by the timber industry. When the costs of logging, limbing and transporting her trees to the mill are factored in, one of her towering giants will pay Deumling a little more than $100. She won't get rich with Zena Forest.

"When you look at the forestry practices that dominate in the Northwest, sustainable forestry is exceptionally hard and economically quite risky," explains Bowersox. "It takes the passion and tenacity of someone like Sarah to make a place like Zena Forest a going and thriving concern."

As the students follow Deumling through the woods, she lops off the head of a thistle here, a wild cherry there, a blackberry or two with a swift chop of the machete. She refuses to use chemicals to control invasive plants, knowing that they kill more than just the plants she doesn't want.

"Do you spend most of your time cutting back invasive species?" asks Darrell McGie, a politics and environmental science major.

"Yes," she says smiling. "And I happen to be quirky enough that I enjoy it. I get satisfaction out of finding those little trees and freeing them from invasive species like the Himalayan blackberries. I always say if it weren't for the invasive species, I could sit on my porch and drink beer all day and watch the trees grow."

McGie, who plans to work in alternative fuels when he graduates this spring, says he's interested in sustainability because of the impact on future generations. "Whether it's a tree, a mineral or any type of resource, it's got to be available to future generations too," he says. "We've got to have continuity and longevity."

Deumling stops at a section of the forest where selective logging has created large holes in the forest canopy, allowing in sunlight. In the area Sarah has tended with the machete, tiny maples and fir push up through the plants on the forest floor. Fifty yards away, in a section she hasn't worked, a mountain of blackberries - and not much else - thrives.

"Of course, we want to keep opening up the forest because we want those new generations of trees and plants to keep coming," she says. "The places I keep after with manual labor do wonderfully well."

As we make our way to down to the skid road, Jean-Jacque Tetu, who will soon be teaching environmental science with his wife on a two-year Peace Corps assignment in Africa, says sustainability is a familiar theme for him. "I grew up in a rural area on Lopez Island," he explains. "My family built our own house out of our own logs, so the ethic of living off the land without modifying it too much is something I understand. The only way we're going to make it in the future is to change our ways and be sustainable."

Matthias James, a junior majoring in biology and chemistry, says he hopes to go into medicine, but sees the value in the Zena Forest. "This place is incredibly beautiful," he says. "Once you change places like this, you can't go back."

Deumling hops onto her four wheeler and guns up a steep hill to the farmhouse she and her son have built on a hill above the forest she tends. The university vans follow behind, straining to scale the gravel climb.

Once the students are settled on Deumling's small deck overlooking a sweeping valley view, she pulls out a thick piece of oak that's been milled into flooring. "This is our dream," she says, holding up the board.

She explains to the students that, in the near future, the 2,000 acres that make up Zena Forest won't exist, at least in its present form. Deumling and her son manage the land, but they don't own it. One of the land owners died recently and taxes have forced the family to put the forest up for sale. A local environmental land trust has expressed interest in part of it. Sarah and Rueben are buying 160 acres that they'll manage with their existing 40 acres.

"Our idea is to create high quality hardwood flooring and other specialty products," she says. "We plan to build a solar/wood fired kiln. We don't have a lot of sun in the winter, but we have a lot of wood scraps, so we think that'll be a good combination."

She passes around the chunk of flooring. Although it's only a foot square, it's incredibly heavy and dense with a fine grain.

"If people begin to think that local is good, the hardwood possibilities are endless here," she says, almost breathlessly. "It's a dream, but in five to 10 years, we can tell you how it's working."