It's cool and quiet in the woods. The only sound is the scrinch-scrunch of boots on a forest path wet from the morning rain. Farther up Mt. Emily, a slight mist hugs the treetops in a final embrace before the sun can chase it away.
Dale Decker stops, gestures toward the huge, well-spaced trees on either side of the path.
"Thinning the trees separates the canopy and allows the sun in to help the forage grow Â— and the roses. They're almost a nuisance now," he adds.
Except for the tumbles of wild pink roses threatening to overtake the open spaces, there is an almost park-like feeling to this part of Dale Decker's tree farm. The forage is lush, but under control.
"The steers are over yonder," Decker says. And indeed, a fence of white tape strung to keep his few head of livestock at bay must be working, since they are nowhere to be seen this morning.
Up the path a few more feet and there, tucked within three acres of tall, magnificent trees, is a picture-perfect little cabin.
"This is the first property my wife and I bought. Later, I milled the trees Â— built the house for our retirement," he says.
Unfortunately, Mrs. Decker died before the couple could live there. The couple's daughter, Dara, now lives there with her husband.
The little cabin sits just up the path from Dale's house Â— a rambling early-20th century two-story farmhouse where Dara and her brother Dustin grew up. That house, and its surrounding six acres of forestland, is the second piece of property Dale Decker, a retired high school teacher, bought in the mid-1960s.
Both pieces have been more purposefully managed, yielding some massive trees that stand far apart. It has an older feel than another parcel just around the corner on Orchard Road Â— his parent's original home place.
It was 1959 when Harold and Julia Decker bought the first 20 acres and a small house on the forested feet of Mount Emily's southeastern slope.
They had a vision. They wanted to plant the land Â— not with wheat and alfalfa Â— but with Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir. Most of all, they wanted to leave it in better shape than the way they found it.
"My dad was a judge with the justice court. He didn't really know anything about tree farming. But he'd spend all his extra time and weekends learning as he went," Decker recalls.
Joining the Oregon Tree Farm System, the Deckers absorbed all the knowledge they could about how to care for and improve their property. Three years later, they purchased an additional 40 acres adjacent to the original piece. That legacy Â— the land and the stewardship Â— was handed over to their son.
"And I want to pass it to my children better than I found it," Decker says.
In the late 1970s, when his children were very young, Decker purchased an additional 60 acres farther up the road for a total of 127 acres of mostly
"In three generations we've brought five separate pieces together," he says proudly.
Farm priorities include meeting the tree-farm system requirements of having a written forest stewardship plan that promotes sustainability of air, water, wildlife and resources.
"Managing a tree farm takes a lot of effort," says Jamie Knight, a forester with the Oregon Department of Forestry. "There's a lot of work in regeneration Â— planting, tending and growing trees."
"We're constantly fighting bugs," Decker adds, explaining they get into a tree's cambium layer Â— cells between the bark and the woody part of the tree Â— and stunt tree growth. The devastation to the tree also costs the tree farmer money by reducing future commercial harvests. The only way to get rid of the bugs, Decker says, is to chip any infested trees or green slash.
Decker has done some pre-commercial thinning to help cover some of his management costs, but some rewards can't be measured in monetary terms.
"So far, it costs me more than it makes," he says of the venture.
The value of caring for the land and seeing it respond carries its own reward.
Knight, who also administers the National Fire Plan for the ODF, nominated Decker for 2004 Oregon Tree Farmer of the Year because she was so impressed with his overall objectives for the forestland, not for his commercial success.
"Fire prevention and protection are a high priority for Dale," she says, adding he has invited the local high school to use his land for fire suppression classes. In addition, he and son Dustin own a fire truck Dustin uses in his work as a contract wildland
But beyond that, in her nominating letter Knight stated that, "Aesthetics, pasture and feed for cattle and wildlife, preventing erosion from forest roads and activities, recreation, economics, timber production, long-term sustainability, and to provide the same legacy that his father provided for him," were of the utmost importance.
Knight admits she is not only impressed with the tree farm's operation, but with the tree farmer, too.
"Yeah, he's a great guy. It's a pleasure to work with the whole family on this," she says.
And although that great guy seems uncomfortable when the conversation turns to him personally, he thoroughly enjoys talking about the land.
"Sometimes, I wish it was all in one chunk, but part of the fun and challenge in all this is that each piece of property is different, with different species and different management needs. Each one has been owned by somebody different and managed differently. Some's been clear cut and some barely managed for fuel," he says.
Decker says the variety of timbered landscapes sustain a variety of wildlife Â— from small woodland animals to elk and deer, depending on the season.
"There're lots of birds, all kinds of birds, different game birds, too, especially turkeys," he says.
A healthy bird population is a sure sign of a healthy ecosystem, and it seems Decker has taken the legacy his parents gave to him and raised the bar. Will his children be up to the task? Decker doesn't appear to be worried, saying that both Dara and Dustin are already very involved in the decisions regarding the family property.
"They're already telling me what we should do," he jokes.