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Sean C. Morgan

A recent report from the American Forest Foundation features Fun Forest, a Sweet Home family forest in connection with the owners’ expertise in meeting market challenges.

The owners, Jim Cota and Scott Melcher, began working together more than 30 years ago.

In 1980, Cota went to work for Melcher Logging, a family owned forest products company in Sweet Home founded in 1952. Working his way up in the company, Cota formed close relationships with Scott and the late Robbie Melcher, grandsons of the firm’s founder, Nick Melcher.

Over the last 20 years, they have established a group of successful forestry contracting companies, serving private and government forests.

As they worked together, they realized they shared a common goal – to have a forest of their own so they could create a legacy that would benefit their children and later generations of their families.

In 1999, they purchased a 320-acre parcel and started Fun Forest Tree Farm, a big step toward achieving their goal. The forest has grown to 1,500 acres since then, including plots of varying size.

Many of the parcels had been neglected by previous owners, so Cota and the Melchers devoted significant time, skill and resources to rehabilitating, restoring and sustaining their forest.

While Fun Forest is now well-established, Cota and Melcher are heavily involved in the county and state forest associations, where market challenges are a major concern.

“We have a big advantage because of our expertise in harvesting and marketing logs,” Melcher said. “So we’re constantly monitoring markets and adjusting. Other family forests are much more at the markets’ mercy.”

Generational transfer is on Melcher’s and Cota’s minds following the death of Robbie Melcher last year.

“Scott and I are constantly talking about how we can keep the Tree Farm whole after we’re gone,” Cota said. “We don’t want to have built it up only to see it torn apart.”

The Melchers and Cota have worked hard to make Fun Forest a resource not only for their families but also the community and schools, allowing neighbors to hunt and fish with permission and working with students.

“We work with students from preschool to college,” Cota said. Younger children come out to the farm to dig fossil clams and snails. Elementary and high school students study forestry.

The three worked closely with Sweet Home High School to restart the Forestry Club in recent years. In addition, they help with fund-raising and donations. A few years ago, they started a scholarship program.

Melcher said that last year’s recognition as Regional Tree Farmer of the Year, selected from 14 applicants in a 17-state region, probably led to Fun Forest’s mention in the report.

“We met some people back at the national convention that were in the political arena,” Melcher said. “We’re on top of our marketing,” but managing the forest takes much more.

They have to make sure they have a good road system so they can get to their wood year round, Melcher said. They work on it all the time.

As a private forest owner, it can be hard to know when to harvest, he said, and for now Fun Forest isn’t focused on cutting trees.

When he and Cota expand, they harvest at that time, he said, but their primary purpose is growing trees.

“More of these acres are growing trees today than when we purchased the property,” Melcher said. Empty fields now grow trees.

Their biggest risks are in the young stands, Melcher said. Fire is a relatively rare risk on the west side of the mountains, and the biggest risk is from members of the public.

“It’s important for the public to understand forestry and how small woodlands fit into the landscape,” he said, referring to the report’s emphasis on “bridging the knowledge gap.”

Oregon is ahead of the game compared to other states in some areas.

Oregon has a system that helps owners of small woodlands by allowing the deferral of taxes until wood is harvested, Melcher said. Much of the country pays property taxes based on the land’s highest-value use. Owners sell parcels of forestland to pay the taxes.

According to the report, property sold this way often ends up developed.

“That’s a big one in the east – how to maintain these small forests,” Melcher said.

Inheritance taxes are specifically mentioned in the report as an obstacle to keeping family forests functioning.

Some percentage of Fun Forest land came by way of estate sales.

“Because of the inheritance tax, they were forced to sell,” Cota said. Death and other transitions can throw a forestry plan out the window, leaving a small forest unsustainable.

Meeting challenges like this requires the public to be educated on how lives actually rely on the forests, he said. “A lot of people think you go over to Home Depot, and boards magically appear there.”

Melcher also is concerned about forest health, he said. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, if someone is actively managing a forest, it’s going to be better than you see on a federal forest.”

Those are unmanaged and overgrown, fire- and disease-prone, Melcher said. Those forests are right next door to the private forests, putting them at risk as well.

The federal forests are hampered by environmental policies that limit cutting and salvage, he said, and there are many projects that could support national forests and provide wood.

If federal wood was available, it might affect the more visible private lands that are closer to the cities, the small forests that environmental activists see most often, he said. It might lead to longer rotations on private lands.

Oregon is headed the right way with tax credits for transportation of wood products waste to co-gen plants, he said, and the federal government could take queues from Oregon’s Forest Practices Act, which is functional.

Owners can work with it, addressing the concerns of owners and the people, he said.

“The American Forest Foundation is supporting small forests, leading the bandwagon on good issues,” Melcher said.

In the meantime, “we’ll harvest when we need to harvest and grow them for as long as we can afford to grow them,” Melcher said.

The Fun Forest families include six children, he said. It will be a full-time job for one or two of them.

He hopes the children pick up the forestry, he said. The opportunity’s there for them if that’s their life dream.

“It’s our desire to build it so we have something to pass on to them,” Melcher said. “It’s there for what they need, whether it’s economics or just a place to come to.”