Deumling: Part of the problem

Submitted photo ## Zena Forest Products CEO Ben Deumling outside the company mill, located in the heart of his family’s 1,300-acre Eola Hills hardwood forest.
Submitted photo ## Zena Forest Products CEO Ben Deumling outside the company mill, located in the heart of his family’s 1,300-acre Eola Hills hardwood forest.

As a business owner and rural landowner, I followed the rural Amity bakery case closely as it moved through the land use planning process. I can relate to the aspirations, intentions and ideals of Wesley Stoller and Bram Yoffie, as I embarked on an entrepreneurial endeavor of my own 14 years ago on forest land belonging to my family.

If you recall, the News-Register announced the applicants’ bid this way: “If all goes well, farmer Wesley Stoller and baker Bram Yoffie plan to sow winter wheat this month, and begin the work of cleaning and restoring a historic granary on Stoller’s farm and building a massive stone wood-fired oven in late winter.”

But all did not go well, and the two eventually gave up. Stoller blamed it on a Gaston farmer who “signaled to us that he will oppose our farm project at all cost.”

In our case, we have a Zena-area forest comprised primarily of native hardwoods. They are beautiful and useful, but require a milling capacity, lacking at the time.

In the interest of realizing more value from our forest, I set out to build a sawmill and millwork operation allowing us to turn our local hardwood logs into high quality flooring and lumber.  I learned some valuable lessons along the way that I believe have direct bearing on this and other land use cases here in our precious Willamette Valley landscape.

The idea of locating the sawmill where the trees grow appealed to me. We already owned the land, the setting would be idyllic, and the idea of building a sawmill in the middle of the forest had a certain old world charm that seemed to just make sense.

I started work building a sawmill and developing a rural business in the midst of a forest. It was rewarding work, digging trenches for utilities, clearing a building site and watching my vision take shape in front of me. 

I had to go through a lengthy county planning process. However, Oregon land use law made a provision for sawmills on rural and forest lands, so I prevailed.

In the beginning, the constraints of building a business in the middle of the forest seemed quaint. For example, how do you run a manufacturing business on single-phase electricity and how do you navigate delivery trucks up our narrow but winding driveway? 

These were problems to be solved, and I boldly persevered. I felt fortunate to be living the dream of taking an idea through to fruition on my own.

The rustic nature of the operation was part of the charm. When customers visited, not only could they look at finished lumber, but they could tour the forest from where it came. This was the best sales tool ever, and it was working.

As time went on, the business started to grow. I hired more people and kept expanding our infrastructure.

Over time, it has become increasingly harder to fit this business into such a quaint and idyllic setting in the middle of the forest. Constraints that at first seemed simple to overcome have become more challenging to deal with.

Lack of adequate electricity and water have become serious issues. As the business grows, I feel increasing pressure to clear more land as well, ultimately going against the grain of our core business — growing trees.  

From the hindsight of 14 years, I can attest this is absolutely not the right place to erect a mill. My milling operation belongs on industrially zoned land on the edge of town.

I would have access to all the space and utilities I need. Truck access would be easy and growth opportunities ample.

Up here in the forest, I find myself facing the gambler’s fallacy. I’ve invested so much in the operation that the only viable option seems to stay the course.

I sincerely wish that 14 years ago, someone older and wiser had told me what I know now. As wonderful as it sounded at the time, this was a foolish endeavor — one I have come to regret.

Our land use laws here in Oregon are grounded in good intentions and deserve to be heeded in spirit as well as in letter. 

Manufacturing and retail businesses belong in town. The countryside should be left to natural resource production and unencumbered open spaces.

There is an inherent symmetry to this relationship, and both rural and urban landscapes benefit immensely.

Our rural towns can use the investment in infrastructure and traffic and business this investment generates. Meanwhile, our rural lands are relieved of degradation, development and conversion that is plain to see everywhere we look.

Every new business on rural land represents another step toward parcelization and fragmentation of the natural landscape. It draws more traffic, straining our rural roads and infrastructure.

It makes the actual business of farming and forestry harder every year. It raises the price of rural land, making it demanding for the folks who want to steward these places to acquire them.

Every new business on rural land undermines our small rural towns and continues to stretch their frayed social fabric.

I say all this with the keen awareness that I have been part of this problem these last 14 years.

There is more traffic on our gravel county road than there used to be. And there are a couple acres in the middle of our forest that won’t ever grow trees again.

I do not yet know what it will take to move this business to a more suitable location, but I am starting to consider my options.


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