Common-sense timber management: Howard Johnson of Wallowa, Oregon

Howard Johnson of Wallowa, a "retired" cattle rancher, is quietly challenging some widely held beliefs about the management of forest lands. In eastern Oregon, many have grown up believing that a commercial timber harvest is a once-in-a-lifetime thing on a piece of land, or at most once in a generation. And many believe that forest health is a cost, and that it can only be achieved at the expense of something else.

Though his 3900-acre Smith Mountain property northwest of Wallowa is not a premium site for growing timber, Johnson's committed management has achieved results that have surprised Johnson himself.

A grandson of Joseph F. Johnson, one of the Wallowa Valley's original settlers, Howard Johnson did not set out to be a tree farmer. He raised cattle.

Ellen Bishop
Howard Johnson
Howard Johnson, June 2004.

"I used to be a do-everything sort of a guy. Maybe I worked twenty hours a day calving. So I decided well, if I didn't raise these beef cows, nobody's going to starve to death. If I put in more time doing other things, maybe I'd be better off. I was starting to slow down, and couldn't do everything on my own. So I sold the cattle and just started managing the timber." He says it was the best decision he ever made.

This was in 1979, when Johnson was at the age where most men retire. Mark Jacques of the Oregon Department of Forestry helped Johnson develop a management plan that included a steady dose of thinning. "The bottom line here," says Jacques, "is that Howard followed through. Seven days a week he keeps plucking away at it." Johnson admits that he didn't realize how much work was involved in managing a timber stand.

In 1986, Johnson was chosen Oregon Tree Farmer of the Year. At the time, he didn't think he deserved it--not yet. "When I'm out of the picture I want it to be improved from when I came into the picture. I want an improved stand. I guess if all of us did that, it wouldn't be too bad, would it?"

The whole question of timber management, observes Johnson, "boils down to your philosophy. There's a philosophy out there that says you own this land, you can do anything you want. I don't believe that. If you're not improving that land, you're not living up to the potential of the property."

Howard Johnson's brother Reid leases the grazing on the property. They leave at least a third of the grass so that it is better able to build its root system. "That way it's continuous." Johnson believes that grazing is a good management tool, and that it cuts down on the risk of fire.

"A grazing-timber unit is always able to make its way if it's properly managed. If you take care of the land, the land will take care of you."

Johnson's Smith Mountain property, which he has owned since the 1940s, was logged about 1917. Traces of the old logging-railroad grade can be seen. "Talk about high-grading in this country, this is one of the worst places I ever saw to be high-graded. They dragged every tree out of here that was a top tree."

Pointing to some crooked and heavily limbed ponderosa pines, Johnson notes, "All of this stuff has come in since then, seeded in not by the best tree, but by what they left. Made a difference, didn't it? What we're trying to do now is to get some decent timber back for the future."

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Ellen Bishop
elk calf
Elk calf on Howard Johnson's tree farm. June 2004.

Some of the land was logged again in the 1930s, when Bowman Hicks had an order for select pine. They cut the biggest pines, took out only two sixteen-foot logs per tree, and left the tops--which didn't have value at the time.

"Since I've owned this property, I've sold some timber years ago, before I ever thought about tree farming or anything, and paid for the land, paid for the ponds, put the fence in. If I hadn't cut that, it would have been just a beautiful stand of timber now. The price wasn't all that great either. I got $8 a thousand. But I only paid $3.50 an acre with the timber on it."

"If I hadn't started managing this timber, there wouldn't be anything here, because I think the pine beetles would have taken it all. I thought I had the pine beetles under control, but two or three years after that, here they were, back again. So I took out close to a million board feet. I discovered a way to burn the residue, and haven't had any problem since."

"Spacing helps. About all you can do with your timber is keep it healthy and vigorous. If you've got enough moisture and nutrients to grow five trees and you put it all in three, when these bugs come the tree pitches them out. It's got so much sap there that it drowns them in it. That's the tool you have to use."

Peter Donovan
Howard Johnson

Partly in an effort to make up for the poor genetics of some of his pine, Johnson prunes limbs on some smaller trees to make more clear lumber. "You can come out and do a lot of things yourself if you're not paying yourself a big wage."

"Anytime the trees are shoulder high, you want to get in there doing something with those trees."

The property now includes meadows, grass slopes, streams, and mixed-age and mixed-species stands of ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, larch, and lodgepole pine. Johnson enjoys showing visitors a big patch of aspen near a stream.

Aesthetic values are important to him. "I always have a pleasure just driving through the pasture." The property supports a wide variety of birds, which Johnson both enjoys and values for their role in keeping down destructive insects. Deer and elk are fairly abundant. The diversity of wildlife, Johnson says, "just kind of grows on you."

"This is one area where I've got plenty of trash on the ground. But most of the area is a little too clean, I'll admit."

He sees value in biodiversity. "Some of this ground cover, you'd think you'd just like to get rid of that kind of junk, but there is a value there. That value is holding the moisture there, cooling the ground in the hot summer."

Even the poorer parts of the property look good to him. "The southern end of the property, the soils are a little thinner, therefore you don't retain as much moisture. Possibly you don't have as tall a tree. So it isn't a high-production area. I just have to take care of what nature gave me out here. That's what you have to do, take care of what you have, and see if you can improve it."

"When I first started, I didn't have any idea what I might have out here. I grew into it."

"When I was running cattle, I'd ride around and see some of these bigger trees. I was mentally figuring how many loads of logs I could cut. I wasn't thinking about maintaining those trees, or keeping part of them, or anything."

Johnson now sees things differently, in part because of the increased prices for logs. "You've got that tree out there. It's making you more money standing there growing than if you cut it down and put the money in the bank." He points out that many people still sell timber merely to support their cattle operations.

In the 1980s Johnson attended the Master Woodlands Program in La Grande, sponsored by OSU Cooperative Extension. He learned more about the importance of soil and the productivity of land. "We were supposed to spread the message afterwards. But I don't fit into the proselytizer bracket very well."

Mark Jacques notes that Johnson is able to use knowledge effectively. Johnson says, "You don't need to invent the wheel every time you go out into the woods." If you know that a practice helps, you use it, he says--you don't sacrifice productivity or health by setting up a controlled experiment.

Peter Donovan
Howard Johnson
Howard Johnson limbs a freshly fallen tree.

On most of his property, Johnson does little tree planting. Pines will seed themselves, he points out, if the ground is disturbed as in logging or slash burning. Though Johnson burns a much of his pine slash to kill pests and to prepare a seedbed, he sees little value in uncontrolled fire.

"I don't think too much of burning. The most important thing to a timber stand we haven't seen today. It's the microorganisms in the ground that make it possible for these trees to grow. When you have an extremely hot fire, you destroy them. It takes a lot of years to build that back. Mycorrhizae are really important. A lot of these other microorganisms help the mycorrhizae. You're just destroying what you're trying to do."

"I heard a fellow from Oregon State talk about the microorganisms. When they had these big fires and killed the microorganisms off quite a bit, it affected the growth of trees in that area for a hundred years, according to him."

"Fire is a good tool that has to be used by knowledgeable people, not turned loose."

The fear of fire loss discourages some landowners from managing their timber, Johnson says. So does the fear of regulation--some landowners logged their streambanks before the Forestry Practices Act prohibited it.

Wind and heavy snow are hazards. In 1994 a heavy snowfall flattened many of Johnson's smaller ponderosa pine, as well as causing a good deal of breakage in the larger trees. Johnson staked many of the smaller trees back up, and was able to salvage the broken timber.

When Johnson retired from the cattle business in 1979, he didn't anticipate that this property, after being high-graded at least twice, and with the pine beetle outbreaks, would be able to produce the volume in board feet that it does. He also didn't anticipate the many levels of satisfaction that the work and the process of management would bring.

Mark Jacques says that the people who manage timber well are almost always people with a long-standing and practical feel for the land.

Howard Strobel of the Oregon Department of Forestry remembers asking Johnson about the best way to change people's attitudes about forest management. Johnson paused about ten seconds and said, "Well, I don't think you can. They just have to do it themselves."

Yet incentives can help in the long run. Johnson says, "Actually, it is to the owner's benefit to do this work [thinning]. You shouldn't have to pay him to do it. On the other hand, it is an incentive to get him to manage his timber. And that's what it's all about."

Doug McDaniel of Lostine remarks about Johnson, "I'm reasonably certain he's got a bank account that would choke a cow, and his life is taking care of that land. He isn't down in Palm Springs spending his money on golf and doing nothing."

Asked if he had regrets, Johnson grins. "Hindsight always bring out a person's mistakes. I should have purchased more land at those low prices. However, times were tough. It was hard to make a living. Land values improved, the economy improved to the point where it was easier to pay higher prices for land. Timber values increased. The cow herd increased, and as a result the bank balance improved."

The worst thing for a timber stand, Johnson says, is to do nothing. Having too many trees per acre increases the risk of catastrophic fire and disease--we must thin our timber stands, he says, in order to improve the forest health that is a major regional concern. Howard Strobel notes that by almost any standard, Johnson's property is a good example of forest health.

This health hasn't been achieved at the expense of production, wildlife, or aesthetic values. With the diversity in ages, soils and sites, and plant and animal species on Johnson's property, these factors don't seem to be opposed.

Johnson is frustrated by politicians' lack of interest in good forest management. On the subject of the Eastside Ecosystem plan, he says he doesn't think the "bureaucrats and scientists back in Washington DC" are capable of good management from there. "They have to be on the land where the problems are."

Doug McDaniel says that the Eastside plan is "excluding the people that make things happen from the decision-making process. [Undersecretary of Agriculture] Jim Lyons has said that it will cost a billion dollars to do the Eastside forest health plan. I'm sitting here saying, 'You know, Mr. Lyons, all you'd have to do is to go up to Howard Johnson's and sit with him for two days. He'll get you your environmental side of your plan, he'd get you the social side of your plan, and he'll make you a billion bucks.' Really, it's that simple. The people who sweat, the people who work, have been excluded from the decision-making process for so long that we're on the brink of disaster."

Johnson has written down some thoughts as to why he is a tree farmer: "A wonderful form of exercise where sweat from the body results in improved natural resources beneficial to all--man and wildlife. The aesthetic values are great. It is quiet and uplifting where one's mind can function without world distractions. It is a challenge where new ideas can still be tried as long as one works with nature. The rules of tree farming are not cast in cement."

"It is unfortunate that more people cannot experience the opportunity of tree farming."

Howard Johnson is also featured in the video, Forestry that Works