Fir boughs find a lucrative market as commercial harvesters reopen meadows on Marys Peak
The Siuslaw National Forest is clearing out some of the noble fir trees that have encroached into the scenic wildflower meadows near the summit of Marys Peak.
But before the trees come out, a small work crew armed with pruning shears and long-handled loppers is cutting off the lower branches. The blue-green noble fir boughs are in demand for holiday wreaths and swags, giving the tree trimmers a lucrative market for the greenery — and giving the Forest Service a chance to get paid twice for the same trees.
In truth, noble fir isn’t worth that much as a saw log at current prices. The limited number being felled in and around the meadows will most likely be bucked for firewood or dropped into streams to enhance fish habitat.
The meadow clearing work had to be packaged with a larger thinning sale to make it economically attractive for commercial logging. But making the fir boughs available for sale got the attention of specialty forest products companies — and at $663 a ton, the greenery harvest should bring in an extra $11,000 or so for the Forest Service.
“Since we’re doing the meadow restoration, we decided we might as well sell all the merchantable product,” said Kraig Kidwell, the timber sale administrator for the Siuslaw. “And these are pretty high-value noble fir boughs.”
Handmade Wreaths is the Lebanon company that won the bough contract, and owner Robert Hand was hard at work last week with his father and a couple of assistants, snipping the most promising-looking branches from trees marked for removal on Marys Peak’s upper slopes. An early snow made the labor cold and the footing treacherous.
He said noble fir is prized for holiday decorations for its long-lasting foliage, which has a distinctive bluish tinge.
“It only grows up above about 3,500 feet, usually, so it’s a lot hardier than Douglas fir,” Hand said.
He’ll twist some of the boughs into wreaths, which are sold at his family’s roadside stand near the Willamette Speedway on Airport Drive in Lebanon or by school and church groups as a fundraising tool.
He’ll also sell some of the foliage to bigger companies for use in wreaths or holiday swags.
“I can get 30 to 35 cents a pound for this stuff,” Hand said.
For public land managers like Kidwell, nontimber forest products harvesting can be a way to maximize receipts while achieving management objectives. On Marys Peak, the noble fir bough cutting brings in a little extra cash while advancing the goal of reopening meadows that have been slowly filling in with trees.
“Over time, those will all grow together,” Kidwell said Thursday on a tour of the project area. “You’ll have one solid stand of trees.”
A total of 21 acres of trees, mostly noble and Douglas fir, will be taken down from the summit meadows on Marys Peak, a 4,097-foot mountain west of Corvallis that is the highest point in Oregon’s Coast Range.
Some of the distinctive “tree islands” that dot the meadows will be thinned but not completely cleared, Kidwell said. The downed trees will be removed from the meadows before the next crop of wildflowers blooms, while the stumps will be cut down to ground level, covered with soil and planted over with native grasses and flowers.
That logging is being bundled with a 1,600-acre thinning project that is expected to bring in about $1.1 million. Some of that money will help pay for the $1.7 million Marys Peak Landscape Management Project, which includes the meadow restoration, some road repair and decommissioning, fish passage improvements and other work on the Siuslaw.
Traditional timber harvesting still dwarfs the value of nontimber forest products on most public land. For instance, Kidwell said, permits to gather mushrooms, evergreen boughs and other foliage such as salal are expected to bring in about $130,000 this year on the Siuslaw National Forest.
But for entrepreneurs like Hand, evergreen boughs and other secondary forest products can bring significant financial rewards.
Reliable data on the value of the industry is hard to come by. But a 2011 report from the Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station titled “Nontimber Forest Products in the United States” provides some estimates.
The report defines nontimber forest products as everything from posts and poles to decorative foliage, medicinal plants and edible mushrooms. In 2007, the last year for which information was available, permits for harvesting these products on U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management property totaled more than $7.1 million nationally.
But that’s only about 10 percent of the “shed value,” the amount the harvester gets at the first point of sale, the authors calculated, and federal land accounts for less than a quarter of the national supply of these products.
Based on those assumptions and standard economic models, the report projected that national gross sales of nontimber forest products in 2007 totaled nearly $1.4 billion.
Pat Mooney of Oregon Herb and Craft Products in Creswell thinks the market may be even bigger than that — $1 billion a year in the Northwest alone, by his calculations — and could be still more profitable if public agencies such as the Forest Service would ramp up their permitting efforts.
“If we could just get in ahead of the logging companies before they harvest, we could have more product than the industry could handle,” Mooney said. “There’s a lot they could do that would enhance (the industry).”