At 75, the company is still building on founder's vision
When T.J. Starker bought his first 110-acre patch of second-growth forest land in the Coast Range in 1936, a lot of people thought he was crazy. What was the point of tending young trees that wouldn't be ready to cut for decades when there was an endless supply of big old-growth timber just waiting for the ax?
But Starker, a forestry professor at Oregon Agricultural College (the future Oregon State University), took a longer view. He knew those forest giants wouldn't be around forever and that his property would keep increasing in value as his young trees matured to marketable size. He just kept buying logged-over land, managing his second-growth stands and biding his time.
Time has proved him right.
Three-quarters of a century after T.J.'s first purchase, Starker Forests has close to 80,000 acres of prime Western Oregon timberland, most of it in Benton and Lincoln counties with smaller holdings in Lane, Polk and Linn.
Under the leadership of his grandsons, Bond and Barte Starker, the company today has a full-time staff of 20, employs a summer crew of 12 and averages around $15 million in annual sales. It also has an enviable reputation as one of the most widely respected family-owned timber companies in the state.
Jim Geisinger, executive vice president of Associated Oregon Loggers, calls Starker Forests "one of the top-tier companies in our industry," and he gives much of the credit for that to Bond and Barte Starker's careful stewardship of T.J.'s legacy.
"They're carrying on the tradition their grandfather started, and they're doing it well."
Setting the standard
By any measure, T.J. Starker was one of the true pioneers of Oregon's timber industry.
In 1910, he was one of four young men who made up the first graduating class in forestry at Oregon Agricultural College. He returned to his alma mater in 1922 as a professor of forestry, serving on the faculty for the next 20 years.
He became known as an innovator, conducting experiments to discover which tree species would grow best in various soils and climate conditions and establishing a "post farm" to test the durability of various woods with and without preservatives.
He left the faculty in 1942 to work full time managing his timber holdings, but he maintained a close involvement with the university and the School of Forestry.
As his business grew, Starker also took an active role in promoting the state's growing timber industry, participating in professional organizations and serving two terms on the state Board of Forestry.
At the same time, he was extremely active in civic affairs. He served on the Corvallis School Board, helped acquire the land for Avery Park and led a fundraising drive to restore Good Samaritan Hospital to financial stability.
Passing the torch
T.J.'s son, Bruce, followed in his father's footsteps, earning a forestry degree at Oregon State College and then coming to work in the family firm.
Bruce Starker continued the family tradition of innovative forest management, emphasizing soil productivity over standing timber in evaluating land purchases. He also introduced the judicious use of herbicides to get new plantations off to a good start.
As Bruce took on more management responsibility, he also made his mark in the profession, joining efforts to improve forest genetics and reforestation practices. In 1971, when Oregon became the first state in the country to enact a comprehensive forest practices law, he was appointed by the Board of Forestry to help draft regional forestry rules for Northwest Oregon.
Both of Bruce's sons had been working part time in the family business since high school, and each came aboard full time after completing their forestry degrees at Oregon State, Bond in 1969 and Barte in 1972.
The brothers were thrust into management positions far sooner than they expected when their father died in a small-plane crash in 1975. The family commemorated his passing by donating several acres to the city for what became Bruce Starker Arts Park and by endowing an annual series of forestry lectures at Oregon State University.
After his son's passing, T.J. Starker resumed active management responsibilities for a timber company that now had about 50,000 acres of forest land. In 1981, the family patriarch officially retired after reorganizing the business as a corporation with Bond as president, Barte as executive vice president and their mother, Betty, as secretary and treasurer.
Tradition and change
Although T.J. Starker died in 1983, his influence lives on in the company he founded - but each successive generation has also left its mark.
Gary Blanchard, who became Starker Forests' first full-time nonfamily employee in 1961 and still works for the company part time, traces the progression this way:
"T.J. was an innovator, no question about that, but he knew what worked and he stuck with it.
"Bruce was really into buying high-site (high-productivity) lands.
"Barte and Bond have continued to embrace these new techniques."
Building on their father's work in forest genetics, the brothers have fine-tuned the mix of tree species they grow based on local soil, and climate characteristics.
"You don't plant the same tree everywhere," Barte said.
"We plant a lot of Douglas fir, but we also plant a lot of grand fir, cedar and hemlock, plus small amounts of ponderosa pine and spruce."
They leave a lot more standing snags for wildlife these days, as well as hardwood species such as maple, alder and ash.
The brothers have maintained the company's close links with OSU, cooperating with university researchers and Extension agents, sharing data from test plots and staying on top of the latest advances in the field.
"They've been leaders in that way for the whole 75 years," said Ray Wilkeson, president of the Oregon Forest Industries Council, the state's main timber lobbying group. "They've always been concerned with the productivity of the land and better ways to grow trees."
Both brothers are active in civic affairs, serving on nonprofit boards and sponsoring charitable causes, and are heavily involved in professional organizations. In addition, they've established one of the most extensive public outreach programs in the industry, conducting frequent tours on their interpretive trail near Blodgett.
"They do a tremendous amount of education," said Dave Kvamme, a spokesman for the Oregon Forest Research Institute. "We think they're great ambassadors to the public about sound forestry."
They've also made a lot of friends with an extremely liberal public use policy, making their lands available to hunters, hikers, horseback riders and other recreational users through a permit system. Last year, Starker Forests issued more than 2,300 permits, most at no charge.
One of the beneficiaries of this open door policy has been the Mudslinger, a popular mountain bike race that's been staged on Starker land for the last 23 years.
"Working with the Starkers has been awesome," race organizer Mike Ripley said. "They love having people on their property as long as they're responsible."
That policy pays dividends for the company.
"I'll go out there and report if something's broken or if it looks like people have been doing something they shouldn't be doing," Ripley said. "I keep an eye on things."
Like their father and grandfather before them, Bond and Barte Starker continue to take the long view of forest management. Starker Forests is well-known for having much longer harvest rotations than some of the larger industrial timberland owners.
That also helps burnish the company's reputation among the public, but it's also plain good business.
"We just don't believe you maximize the attributes of Douglas fir as a species in a 30-year rotation," Barte said. "It takes 50 to 60 years to get the clear wood and maximize the value of Douglas fir in the marketplace."
That approach has allowed the company to cut an average of 15 million to 20 million board-feet a year for the last 10 years or so. But with more and more stands coming of age, Bond Starker believes the company will be able to start gradually upping those levels while still maintaining a steady supply of mature timber.
"We've been growing our standing inventory most of our careers," he said. "We're getting someplace close to cutting as much as we're growing from here forward."
Starker Forests takes a similarly long-term approach to its business relationships. Many of the contractors the company uses for logging, planting, thinning and other operations have been doing business with the company for a generation.
"We've been planting trees for the Starkers for 25 years, maybe 26 - and we're one of the younger ones," said Lee Miller of Miller Timber Services in Philomath, which also does a lot of thinning on Starker Forests property.
That kind of stability translates into steady, year-round work for Miller's 120-plus employees.
"That means they can go out and buy a house, they can buy a vehicle, they can start a family," he said, "and we don't have a lot of that in our business these days."
The next generation
Barte Starker is 61 now. His brother is 64. Neither is ready to retire just yet, but they've started planning for the company's next transition. Both men are married, with two grown children apiece, some of whom have families of their own. All have shares in the company, and some are showing signs of making their own mark on the family business.
"I'm getting some really good feelings about their interest in diversifying the things we use our lands for, maybe do some recreation-based things," Barte said. "It's really good, I think, for Bond and I to see that next generation come up with new ideas and concepts."
One thing they've never considered, however, is selling the company and cashing in on the value of all that carefully nurtured timberland.
"It's too deep in the blood, I guess," Bond Starker said. "It's more than a business. It's a legacy."
Contact Bennett Hall at 541-758-9529 or firstname.lastname@example.org.