News for those who live, work and play in the Santiam Canyon

Forest Recovery – Freres forced to shift gears amid fire losses

When the smoke cleared in the fall of 2020, Freres Engineered Wood, the largest employer in the Santiam Canyon, was faced with some staggering losses.

Its forest holdings totaled 17,000 acres, with 6,000 of them damaged by the Labor Day weekend blazes. Actually, damaged is nowhere near a strong enough word.

In mid-August, Freres forester Aaron Hutchinson took The Canyon Weekly on a tour of forest property in the North Fork area, just a couple of miles from the company’s Lyons headquarters. What we saw was a veritable moonscape. Stumps, slash, bare ground, knee-high seedlings, scrub brush and ghostly “reprod,” trees that Freres had planted in the past 20 years that were crisped into useless gray remnants of the harvestable trees that might have been.

A forest products company such as Freres works 20, 30 and sometimes 50 years out because that’s how long it takes the Douglas firs to grow to the size the firm needs for its core veneer and plywood businesses. You cut the mature trees, but you are always interplanting, making sure there are enough trees in the pipeline to keep the volume at the proper levels.

In many parts of the Freres property there are no young trees. And many of the older ones that were salvageable already were harvested when the company quickly shifted gears, becoming, at least for the short term, a company that was focused on replanting and salvage logging instead of its primary functions.

“We lost about 70 million board feet in trees from 10 years old to 100 years old,” said Hutchinson, who studied forestry at Oregon State University, His grandfather logged for Freres. His father drove trucks for the company. 

Here is how Jason McCorkle, another OSU-trained Freres forester puts it:

“The largest damage the fires actually did was in those younger age classes where they were too small to salvage so the company essentially lost a 20-plus year investment in those areas and we must now restart from scratch. The timber industry as a whole will really be feeling that impact in the next five to 20 years when those stands would have been large enough to thin and get some return on investment.

“For a company with landholdings as small as Freres it will be a serious hit in the next few decades as we had everything built into a sustainable harvest plan that will now have a huge gap. Larger companies like Weyerhaeuser have so much land they can turn to other tree farms but we just don’t have that luxury… And then there is the added complication that in about 20 years we will have all these acres coming into thinning age (provided nothing burns again) and that will create additional logistical issues.”

Hutchinson: “60-year-old trees are prime for us, sometimes 50. But now, they are all going to come up at the same time. We’re used to having under-aged stands.” 

Think of it this way. It’s as if Coach Jonathan Smith of OSU was told that his football team would not be able to have any freshman or sophomore players. Sure, he could survive for a year or two with his juniors and seniors … but once they graduated the cupboard would be bare.

As the tour with forester Hutchinson showed, just because you plant 3.9 million Doug firs doesn’t mean everything comes out fine in the end. Hutchinson noted that without the normal food sources a forest usually provides, voles have been feasting on the fir saplings. Predatory birds, which usually use mature trees for sanctuary and feast on the voles, have nowhere to land. Also, seeds for invasives such as Scotch broom, which had laid dormant and buried for years, have been sprouting.

Forester McCorkle: “We plant on an original density of about 435 trees per acre using a 10-foot by 10-foot grid and then in subsequent years, dependent on mortality rates, we return to the same areas to interplant more seedlings where the original crop died… In the burned areas we have struggled with new vegetation and wildlife-related issues that have been spurred on from changes to the ecosystem due to the fire – not to mention several hot, dry summers – so our mortality rates have been higher than usual and have resulted in more interplanting than we typically see.”

The burning of the forest property also yields some peculiar objects. 

Next to a blistered maple stump lies a piece of rusted farm equipment. Hutchinson points up the ridge to a spot where a house and a barn used to be. In the latter stages of the tour we come across the site of the first Freres logging operation, which dates to 1922. Only concrete pads and the footings of the house remain. 

In time, perhaps such relics will return to being just largely hidden signs of earlier use that have been covered by a forest.

The Canyon Weekly also met with Freres President Rob Freres, who described the wild scene back in 2020 when determined firefighters and the capriciousness of the winds saved the Freres plants in Mill City and Lyons. And perhaps Stayton as well. 

Freres termed the current lumber market as “sluggish for about a year. Veneer is the weakest. Plywood has held up a little better. Our mass plywood panels (MPP) have a very long order file. That’s very encouraging.”

MPP has helped put Freres on the map globally. The company’s MPP products are being used in a striking roof assembly on the new terminal at Portland International Airport. Also, the company has shipped its final panels for a multi-story wooden “skyscraper” in Oakland, California.

Freres is upgrading its plants and now uses robots that can stack veneer and plywood panels.

Freres Engineered Wood has started using robots to stack plywood and veneer panels. Company officials say the lumber jobs of the future will be more high-tech than before and that employees will be less likely to be injured.James Day
Freres Engineered Wood has started using robots to stack plywood and veneer panels. Company officials say the lumber jobs of the future will be more high-tech than before and that employees will be less likely to be injured.
James Day

“It’s going to make our jobs less physically demanding,” Freres said.

Technology has helped make horrific lumber-yard injuries a thing of the past, with Freres noting that “slivers have become our leading injuries.”

Slivers, tiny wood splinters caught under your fingernails?

“These splinters can wind up going clean through your arm,” Freres said. The work still requires a high degree of safety conciousness.

The company used more than a dozen local high school students as summer interns, but with school all but back in session, Freres is faced with approximately 80 job openings. It’s a nationwide problem, although the issues he is contending with are a bit Freres-specific.

First, as a company that works under federal contracts, Freres must do pre-employment drug screening. That’s a challenge in a state that has legalized recreational marijuana use. Second, the wildfires at least temporarily displayed approximately 2,800 people, some of whom did not return. Now there is little to no rental housing available for people who might have been Freres employees.

Third, Freres noted the presence of the huge Amazon warehouses in Salem and Woodburn that are hiring workers in the thousands. 

His company, he says, is at a hiring disadvantage because folks in the valley have to drive 50 to 60 miles a day to the Freres plant with gasoline at more than $4 per gallon.

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