“Dave wanted a place to play,” said Sarah Karr of her husband, retired Oregon State University College of Forestry Professor David Hibbs.

Truth be told, they both appeared to be in their element as the Gazette-Times took a tour Monday of the 87-acre property the Corvallis residents own just north of the Benton County line off of Airlie Road in Polk County.

Hibbs and Karr, a retired elementary school teacher and avid birder, bought the land in 1996 and ever since have been lovingly grooming it into a bit of a laboratory for forest practices with an eye on sustainability and keeping wildlife habitat as a key part of the picture.

Area tree farmers have taken note. For the outreach and sharing of knowledge and publications work the couple has done, the Benton County Small Woodlands Association has named them the county’s tree farmers of the year. Hibbs and Karr will be honored Saturday with a celebration on the property.

“Dave and Sarah have demonstrated unique silvicultural practices (and) have contributed to public knowledge through Dave’s talks and Sarah’s birding,” said Nancy Hathaway, an association board member who coordinates the tree farmers of the year program.

Hibbs and Karr seem to be born teachers, spending a half hour on the deck of an outbuilding explaining the history of the property, displaying stone tools from the native peoples era, before and after photos of the site and a Thoreau-like notebook that Karr keeps that lists wildlife sightings and the cycles of the forest flora.

Weather changes have played a key role. Karr noted that the Indian plums “bloomed a little earlier this year.”

Hibbs added that he saw a dogwood “that bloomed for a second time. That makes no sense at all.”

A short walk away from the outbuilding reveals their honeybee operation, a barn that has resisted their attempts to make it rodent-free and sections of plywood that often reveal snakes hiding underneath. There are also piles of slash placed strategically through the acreage.

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“We’re a messy forest,” Karr said, "but the messiness is useful as wren habitat.”

A few hundred yards down a winding dirt road are some mineral springs that are popular with band-tailed pigeons because they crave the salts. A couple of days ago Hibbs and Karr saw 60 to 80 such birds pass by. We hear one toward the top of a Doug fir and see plenty of evidence of pigeon fly-bys — feathers and down are everywhere — but no actual sightings.

Hibbs and Karr stop to examine some scat that seems to indicate a coyote. Seems. Hibbs thinks the pieces are too large for coyote. 

A few yards away in the meadow, with the uniform firs of the Hampton Tree Farm visible up the ridge to the property line, Hibbs and Karr are working on a hedgerow. They planted six or seven species that Karr said will help shade the creek for wildlife.

“We try to be different,” Hibbs said, “and not only manage Douglas fir for their timber values but also be conscious of wildlife habitat values."

That means leaving broad-leaf trees and bushes in. And even retaining some invasive blackberries because of their value as habitat for warblers and wrens.

“This is not a huge money-making scheme,” Karr said. “We also value the ability of people to walk their dogs or sit on the deck and watch the herons.”

Hibbs, who retired from OSU three years ago, said that his approach to the family forest is an extension of his university work.

“We’re hoping to see the benefits of taking some of my academic ideas and trying to make it work.” Hibbs said.

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Contact reporter James Day at jim.day@gazettetimes.com or 541-758-9542. Follow at Twitter.com/jameshday or gazettetimes.com/blogs/jim-day.