Thirty years after a fire razed 500 acres of forestland at Defrees Ranch, Dean Defrees still remembers the harrowing ordeal with all five of his senses. “It was extremely smoky, it was hot, and you can feel the fire,” Defrees says. “My dad did suffer a burn on his arm as he was putting in a dozer line. When the fire starts to crown, which means it’s running through the treetops, it can be extremely impressive, with flames probably 150 feet in the air. It also makes a tremendous amount of noise. It kind of sounds like a train – just a big, rumbling noise.” Ever since then, the Defrees family has done all they can to minimize the risk of a devastating fire at their 2,000 acre tree farm in Sumpter Valley, about 25 miles from Baker City in the northeastern corner of Oregon.
Each year, the Defrees family removes smaller trees, brush and debris from about 30 of the farm’s 1,227 forested acres and maintains fire lines throughout their property. With financial support from the National Resources Conservation Service, a program run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the family also installed a series of 1,400 gallon water troughs and a 2,500 gallon cistern storage tank to ensure that in this dry, wildfire prone region, water is readily available. “Those troughs also benefit the wildlife as well,” Defrees says. “The benefits are threefold: They provide water for wildlife, firefighting and livestock.”
The family keeps their creek and stream banks well planted to prevent erosion and preserve water quality, and they built water bars on their logging roads. The diagonal channels across the sloped roads divert surface water, which would otherwise flow down the length of the road, to the sides of the road, preventing road degradation and helping to keep silt and debris out of nearby streams.
That commitment to responsible land management earned them recognition from the American Tree Farm System (ATFS), which named the Defrees family its 2016 National Outstanding Tree Farmer of the Year. The Defrees family and the ATFS’s regional outstanding tree farmers of the year were honored at a reception on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. on Dec. 6 that celebrated the ATFS’s 75th anniversary.
“We’re really honored and can’t believe that out of the 74,000 tree farmers across the nation, we won this award,” Dean Defrees says. “It’s really something. We’re still trying to digest that fact, and it’s been really exciting for the whole family.”
The Defrees family has owned their land since 1904, and Dean Defrees is the fourth generation of his family to call it home. His grandparents raised chickens, sheep and dairy cows, and in the 1970s, the family entered the timber business, harvesting some of the ponderosa pines that dominate the forestland.
Dean, 57, and his wife, Sharon, live on the farm with Dean’s father, Lyle, 83. Dean and his wife have three children: Nathan, a medical doctor in Boise, Idaho, who plans to move back to Baker City in 2017; Tyler, an attorney in Seattle; and Dallas, who lives in Baker City and is pursuing her master’s degree in grazeland ecology at Oregon State University.
Dean and his wife live in a house built by his grandparents, and Lyle lives in a house built by his brother. For Lyle, the thought of leaving the farm never had much appeal.
“I live about a third of a mile from where I was born,” he says. “I’ve traveled quite a bit, and I’ve never found a place I like better. My heart is here.” Dean, who earned a bachelor’s degree in animal science at Oregon State, says he feels the same way.
“When I left for college, I kept my options open, but when graduation rolled around, I felt that this is where I wanted to be” he says. “My wife, who I married right after college, loved the place right after she saw it and was willing to live here with me, so that’s what we did. The land means a great deal to all of us, and I guess that’s why we spend so much time with it. It’s been in the family for so long, and we want to keep it healthy and sustainable for the next generations.”
Timber harvesting accounts for about 40 percent of the family’s business, but due to a sluggish local market for saw logs, the family has recently focused more on its core business, raising beef cattle. The farm is home to about 500 head at any given time, half of which are female cows used for breeding. The beef cattle are born on the farm and spend 14 to 16 months there grazing the meadows, grass fields and forestland before going to market.
But Defrees Ranch is much more than a cattle farm – it’s practically a zoo. Dean says his family has identified 42 species of mammals and 133 species of birds on their land, including white tailed deer, mule deer, elk, antelope, turkey, coyotes, bears, mountain lions, Canadian geese, Sandhill cranes, ducks and woodpeckers. The family frequently hosts hunters, and birdwatchers, and Sharon, a high school biology teacher, often brings classes on field trips to the farm to walk the trails, identify animals and trees and learn about land management.
“They discuss all aspects of habitat and forestry,” Dean says. “We’re trying to get the kids a little bit familiar with what goes on out in the woods on a working tree farm. All the kids love it here so much. It’s just a fun place to go.”
The farm has its own sawmill that the family uses to produce wooden fencing, livestock corrals, scale houses, garages and machinery sheds. “Everything that you need on a ranch that you can make out of wood, we’ve done it.” Dean says.
Back in 1968, when a fire ravaged their property for two weeks, the family wasn’t sure how much of their land would be left. Initially, the Defrees family and their friends and neighbors battled the blaze alone while the Oregon Department of Forestry and the U.S. Forest Service focused on fighting the fire on federal forestland. After several days, those two agencies were able to lend support to the family, but in the end, 500 acres were lost.
“It was pretty devastating to us,” Dean says. “It was so hot and windy that it was really difficult to control, so we put all the resources we had personally on it with our equipment and friends and neighbors. The Forest Service was tied up with other fires at the time. It was kind of a widespread forest fire summer here that year. We did everything we could. We were so busy at the time that it was hard to assess the damage as it was happening. There wasn’t a whole lot we could do, but we did save a pretty good chunk of land that didn’t burn.”
After the fire, the Defrees family got to work restoring their land, planting Douglas fir trees, ponderosa pine, western larch and white pine. Today, those trees measure about 20 feet tall.
“We planted quite a few trees, and we’ve had a lot of natural regeneration, so it’s come along pretty well,” Dean says. “But we’re not like the fast-growing forests of the South or even the coastal region of Oregon. Things grow pretty slow here because we’re in eastern Oregon. It’s dry here, and timber just grows a lot slower.”
Shortly after the fire, the Defrees family faced adversity again, as a mountain pine beetle infestation took over sections of their forest. The family harvested the affected trees and left some dead trees throughout the property to provide habitat for woodpeckers, who feed on the beetles.
“Woodpeckers will make a nest inside the tree, but the tree has to be dead and the wood soft enough for them to excavate a hole in the tree for them to nest in,” Dean says. “So, we try to leave those snag trees, or wildlife trees, placed throughout the property so that we have a good, healthy woodpecker population. One of our goals here on the tree farm is to keep the habitat diverse enough so that we can continue to support these animals.”
The Defrees family joined the ATFS in 1980 and has used it as a resource to better manage their land. The family also has mentored other landowners on the importance of forest management, has participated in state advocacy efforts and presented ATFS events.
“We use their literature a lot and try to keep to their standards,” Lyle says. “When we wrote our management plan, we tried to meet the standards of the American Forest Foundation and the America Tree Farm System. When the AFF’s evaluators were here to consider us for the award, we learned something from every one of them, and we really liked having them here so we could learn.”