Written by: Jim James
Oregon Tree Farm’s June 11th Annual Tour of the Defrees Ranch near Sumpter, southeast of Baker City, provided vivid examples of land stewardship where cattle and timber come together to support a family ownership. The 2,000 acre Defrees Ranch with 1,227 acres of forestland is Oregon’s 2015 Outstanding Tree Farm of the Year, and the American Tree Farm System’s 2016 Western Region Outstanding Tree Farm of the Year. Approximately 160 people attended the tour got to see why. The ranch has been in the family for 107 years.
A variety of management activities included a unique dredge tailing restoration project, tree thinning, aspen restoration, and spring water development. Dallas Defrees, a fifth generation member of the family and an Oregon State University graduate student studying ranchland ecology, explained how the Defrees Ranch in partnership with Baker County designed a project to restore barren dredge tailing. Beginning in 1913, dredges churned up rocks and gold leaving 2500 acres of the Sumpter valley with mounts of near sterile land. A portion of the tailings are adjacent to the Defrees Ranch’s northern border. Dallas described how by winter feeding cattle on the tailing, they were able to decreased bare ground, decreased weed species, and increased soil fertility and thus increase plant diversity and biomass.
Lyle Defrees and his son Dean, Dallas’ father, lead the tour through grazed pastures and managed forests. At the first stop Lyle and Dean explained their cattle management strategies and how they integrated grazing and forest management. The second stop dealt with Quaking Aspen restoration. Dean explained how Aspen is declining in eastern and central Oregon due to a number of factors that include lack of wildfire and wildlife/cattle grazing. The Defreeses contracted with a nursery to grow aspen seedlings which they have planted in fenced off areas.
The third stop demonstrated the precommercial thinning methods they use to promote forest health, reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire, and improve grazing. Saplings up to 2-3 inches are cut with a brush cutter, and larger pre-merch trees are removed with a tree shear. Adjacent to the thinning demonstration was a spring development project to benefit both wildlife and cattle. It was cost-shared through the Natural Resources Conservation Service program. The final stop looked at commercial thinning and slash disposal in the ranch’s predominate ponderosa pine forest. A roast beef luncheon held under sunny skies and the Blue Mountains as the backdrop provided a fitting conclusion to a most informative tour.