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Bridging the Gap Between Lumber Production and Native Plant Restoration

The story of our sawmill collective is rooted primarily in the shared vision of being able to build whilst maintaining a healthier impact on the local ecologies which support our construction. The name Black Oak Timber comes from the recognition of our home in the southern Willamette Valley and points to an important native ecosystem which only thrives with tending by humans. This ecosystem is the oak woodland. The many indigenous tribes of this region tended various types of ecosystems with intentionally prescribed fire including oak woodlands and savannas, prairies and meadows. Through the colonization of these lands and the displacement of the native people, this burning largely ended causing many other plants including conifers to grow up under these oaks and shade them out. Amongst our goals is to focus on thinning and milling these conifers, to return the light to the oaks and as a form of restorative lumber production.

In the southern Willamatte Valley, we are in what is called an ecotone, a point where two different biological communities meet. In terms of our oak forests, this means we see both the Oregon White Oak (Quercus garryana), and the more southern California Black Oak (Quercus kelloggii). We recognize that with the shifting climate and gradually warming average temperatures, we are likely to see species from more southern regions take hold further north. We like the name Black Oak Timber because it helps to tell this story of the importance of the relationship between people and place.

With all of that said, let's move on to an example of us putting these concepts into practice!

In the photo above, you can see two separate "decks" of logs. These decks are logs that have been staged to roll into the mill. At this site, all of the trees that came down were either wind thrown or thinned. Due to the adjacent neighbor clear cutting and opening up a wind tunnel, while simultaneously choosing to leave a cluster of trees near the property line, many trees fell during winter wind storms. The trees which had always had the support of the forest around them now stood alone and had no other canopies near by to soften the heavy gusts of wind.

Moving forward, there are now all of these trees down and the first step to dealing with them is to remove all of their limbs. The removed branches are referred to as "slash" and this material can pile up very quickly if there are a number of trees that need to be processed. So, what to do with all of these limbs? Well, they have potential for many uses. They can make great firewood, wood-chips or biochar. They can also be piled and burned to create seed beds for reestablishing native plants.

For this site, we processed some of the larger branches into firewood. However, we also decided to build a number of burn piles with the smaller branches because the meadow where this milling operation was gets full sun and is just crying to return to an upland prairie habitat. Above, an example of one of these slash piles can be seen. Below, you can see the seed bed created by burning the slash. This spot has recently been seeded with a large variety of natives, as well as being planted with some Camas bulbs which were saved from another site under heavy development. The sprinkling of Camas is what you can see growing in the picture.

Here is another burn pile seed bed, which was seeded a number of months back. You can see a variety of plants germinating already including Lupine, Yarrow and Self Heal. Camas bulbs were planted in as well as a number of other species which may show themselves as the days lengthen and the average temperatures rise.

So, back to our processing of the downed trees...

Once limbed, the logs can be cut to their desired lengths for milling and organized into decks (Remember the picture at the beginning of the story?). Well now, if these decks of logs sit for a while, they will act as a mulch and kill most of the plants growing beneath them, leaving another opportunity to broadcast seeds or plant out pre-potted plants.

Above you can see the byproducts and impacts of our milling operation. A mountain of sawdust, piles of "mill-ends", the off cuts created by squaring the edges of the logs, and lastly, a large bare area left behind from the logs sitting on the ground for some months. This area has received the same treatment as the burn pile seed beds. Native seeds broadcasted and Camas bulbs planted out.

The sawdust left behind by our circular sawmill makes a great mulch for acid loving plants as well as being a nice source of carbon for compost piles. The mill ends make great firewood because they are easy to split and dry quickly but can also be used for simple rustic building projects such as raised beds.

All in all, it's rewarding to see the resources and opportunities created by our operation, and what this can offer to a land based community, homestead or landscape when utilized creatively and intentionally.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for pictures of native wildflower blossoms in the coming months!

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